I often see patients for therapy to address issues related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Somehow, people in their 40s and 50s are being made aware for the first time, after struggling for many years, that they suffer from this illness. Rather than horror, many look at me with relief as they now have an explanation for the symptoms they have felt for so long. Together, we can begin to address the PTSD and improve their lives.
One of the common culprits causing PTSD is childhood trauma. Childhood trauma can lead to many effects and make life really tough for those affected by it. Areas potentially affected are one’s mood, relationships and ability to handle day-to-day stresses. The landmark ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study shined an undeniable spotlight on the lasting effects traumatic experiences can have. (See here for ACEs tools which can help identify and more effectively care for children and adolescents who have been exposed to violence.) The good news is that there are ways which work to lessen these potential negative effects. However, before moving to address the trauma, it is important to understand the signs of PTSD. Understanding some common behaviors of PTSD along with tips for those who encounter these behaviors will be the focus of the remainder of this article. Presented below are four of the most common examples:
1) Strong Reactions to Perceived Adversity
Have you ever been in the checkout line at the grocery store, trying very hard to avert your eyes from the person in front of you who is cursing and yelling at the cashier over a problem? While seemingly totally unjustified, perhaps there is a deeper reason behind this yelling. Indeed, people who have experienced trauma often have difficulty in situations which they feel are out of their control or when things don’t go their way.
When life throws most people a curveball, they can find a way to work through it. However, a person suffering from trauma, who perhaps has been exposed to danger and intense fear in situations when they should not have been, might fold should they encounter a curveball. As hard as it can be, it is so important to keep this in mind and not necessarily rush to judgment.
2) Challenging Interpersonal Relationships
Connecting to new people and developing relationships can be quite tough for a person who’s been exposed to trauma early in their lives. The reasoning: “How could I possibly trust someone new when I’ve been so let down before?” Opening themselves up and building new friendships can be a non-starter for those who’ve experienced trauma. While it isn’t easy, it is possible to connect with trustworthy and sympathetic people over time. Keep that in mind when encountering individuals who have trouble relating to you as a friend or partner.
3) Frequently Displaying Anger
In my experience treating people with PTSD, anger is often their go-to emotional response to adversity. While this can be really challenging for their friends and family members, patience and understanding are paramount. Keep in mind that those who display trauma-induced anger have often learned this behavior from their abusers. In short, just because it looks like anger, doesn’t mean it is.
I often work with clients on identifying their emotions before reacting, because feelings like hurt, frustration, fear, and loneliness can translate into anger very quickly. Learning to “name the feeling” first can help solicit a more appropriate reaction.
4) Debilitating Anxiety
Many of my clients have missed out on job opportunities and friendships because of their intense anxiety. Some even have difficulty doing everyday tasks such as riding the subway or picking up the mail. These can be very isolating experiences. Developing effective coping strategies and relaxation techniques, among other tactics, can help manage the anxiety.
The unfortunate reality is that trauma is a part of life for many people. This can result from, among other possibilities, child abuse, exposure to domestic violence, sexual abuse, and natural disasters. Sadly, many with trauma-related disorders go far too long without the treatments that can make their lives easier and more enjoyable. Compiling matters, the PTSD symptoms in themselves make it even harder to connect with the people and professionals that might be able to help.
My goal is writing this article is to remind my reader to be cognizant that somebody acting out may be impacted by childhood trauma. We must not shy away from encouraging them to get the needed help in order to improve their lives.
Do you feel you broadened your knowledge of the impact of childhood trauma? Please share your questions, thoughts, and comments below.