What is complex childhood trauma?
Childhood usually involves a few traumatic events: accidents or injuries, unintended separations, grief over minor losses, etc. Events such as these can have some long-term impacts, but often they don’t. However, some children experience things that are usually more serious: divorce, death of a parent, ongoing abuse or neglect, a parent with addiction or mental health problems, etc. These usually involve a disruption or difficulty with an important relationship. In these cases, we talk about complex childhood trauma (or developmental trauma). [Look forward to my talking about this regularly in later posts.]
It turns out that these kinds of events or situations can have very damaging long-term impacts on a person’s health. They can increase your chances of developing things like heart disease, obesity and other physical problems as well as mental health issues like depression, anxiety or addiction. [More about the research on this.] In other words, some childhood events can create many different ongoing difficulties. Many people are unaware of this connection, including some in the health fields.
Why is this connection important? For a simple reason: treating the wrong health condition doesn’t always help. If you go to the doctor for a broken arm and she gives you antibiotics, well, your arm won’t get infected, but it also won’t heal correctly. This can happen in therapy. A person will try to get help for depression or anxiety, and they may get medication for it (which can be helpful) and may get some therapy or counseling to gain some coping strategies (which is also helpful). But if the underlying cause is childhood trauma, and that doesn’t get treated, problems often persist.
Some people say, “well, you can’t change the past, so you might as well figure out how to live with it.” In my view, that’s both true and false. It’s true that we can’t change past events, and we can’t change the way we reacted at the time, or the effects it has had up to now. But there is a lot more that can be done than just “learning to live with it.” It turns out that we can actually change what has happened in our bodies as a result of trauma.
Our bodies? That sounds weird. But let’s think about it carefully. Heart disease happens in the body. Depression affects the brain and the chemistry of the blood. Anxiety is mostly physical—heart and thoughts racing, tightness in the chest, shaking, sweating. And most PTSD symptoms are things we can’t consciously control—flashbacks, feelings of unreality, fear, hopelessness, intrusive thoughts about the situation, etc.
Working with the body
For this reason, many of the modern, cutting-edge approaches to trauma treatment are based in the body (we say they are “somatic”). Things such as EMDR, Yoga, acupuncture and massage all have been found to be helpful. I work with a somatic trauma therapy called Trauma Dynamics. It targets the effects that events and situations have had on our nervous systems, particularly the parts we can’t control. This somatic PTSD therapy is only a few decades old, and is still developing. But there is evidence that it’s extremely powerful, even in cases of complex childhood trauma.
So it turns out that healing is possible. We can’t change the past, but we can change the effects it has had on us. That’s good, good news for everyone.