Some survivors have always remembered their trauma. They know how it affected them. They are troubled by memories. They live with the pain, confusion and loneliness they experienced as a child. They may also be plagued by nightmares and flashbacks (sudden memory from past being re-experienced). Others live with panic attacks, strange body sensations and fears, aches and pains they can’t explain. Their body remembers what happened to them. Many also relive the emotions and feelings associated with their trauma, often continually. Despite this many survivors don't connect these symptoms to their childhood trauma and abuse.
Other survivors don’t recall their abuse or trauma at all. Some only remember some of their experiences. Others may not consider or acknowledge that their experiences were traumatic or abusive. Some deny it or minimise it - 'it only happened once' or 'it wasn't so bad'.
Childhood trauma can seriously affect many areas of a person’s life. This includes their quality of life. This can happen even when the person cannot remember what happened to them. It can make basic day-to-day activities, such as eating, sleeping, working and study difficult. It can affect mental health, physical health, and relationships. The following are some ways childhood trauma can affect people.
Survivors often struggle to be in touch with their feelings. They are often confused by emotions and reactions they can’t explain. As a child they may have tried to express their distress or discomfort but were punished, dismissed or ignored. As a result many survivors turn their negative emotions e.g. shame and anger, inwards on themselves. As adults, survivors often still experience intense emotions at different times. These include anxiety, grief, sadness, shame, self-blame, guilt, alienation, hopelessness, helplessness and powerlessness.
Many survivors are so used to being in pain and feeling distressed. They may think that it will never get better. Many use alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling to find relief. Some survivors harm themselves. All of these 'coping strategies' make sense if you experienced child abuse and trauma.
Learning more about emotions – what they are, where they come from, and how to respond to them – can help. Over time, survivors can learn new, effective ways of regulating their strong feelings. When they do, they don’t need alcohol or drugs or to cut themselves to express or numb their emotions.
Survivors often find it difficult to trust others. As children they were often betrayed by the adults who were meant to nurture and protect them. Survivors often find relationships difficult. This includes the relationship with themselves.
Being abused or neglected ‘tells’ children: 'You are worthless' and 'You have no value'. Children take these messages to heart. Many survivors have low self-esteem and poor self-confidence. They blame themselves, and feel bad. Many also feel a strong sense of shame. This can change, with good support and healthy relationships. Change is often gradual. It occurs over time, but it is real.
- Effects on physical health
Childhood trauma and child abuse affect the body and the mind. Growing up in danger and threat sets off the biological fight-flight-freeze response, time and again. This causes this stress response to stay turned on. This in turn heightens emotions. It can make it difficult to sleep. It also affects the way the immune system works. Over time, this makes survivors more likely to develop physical illnesses. These include chronic pain and fibromylgia, gynaecological problems, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, arthritis, headaches, cardiovascular disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Survivors are also more likely to smoke and drink more, and be less physically active. These coping strategies can become risk factors that can affect health and wellbeing in later life.