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How our childhood experiences affect our adult lives

We’ve probably all heard about the nature nurture debate, are we the way we are from our genetic code, or is it our upbringing that plays the dominant role? Whatever we believe, there is no doubt that our childhood experiences play a major part in how we operate in our adult lives. Every day I help people understand the ways that these experiences affect them in all aspects of their life, finding ways to function and do things differently.

These early experiences can result in developmental trauma. We don’t have behaviours and coping mechanisms for no reason, we have them because they were needed and useful at the time. The more extreme the coping mechanism, the more extreme our experiences were. For a lot of my clients, they have very little memory of their childhood and find it hard to recall how their carers or parents behaved towards them. For those people, we have to rely on the body, and the way it moves and reacts to get some kind of clue as to what growing up for them must have been like.

For instance, if they are asked to make a decision, they will often try to work out what the right decision should be. They may fear getting it wrong or that they’ll make the wrong decision. If they can’t get the clues or affirmations from the people around them, then they might panic or get stuck, not knowing what to do. This tells us that either their environment was unpredictable, the rules may have kept changing, or they were expected to take responsibility for things that they just weren’t ready to take. They may have been told off for not making the right decision, therefore feeling a huge responsibility for the enormity of even the smallest of decisions.

These experiences can actually be seen in a physical way in the body, when asked to make a decision, the person might begin to look quickly around the room, they might stare intently at the person in front of them. This might then be followed by a shrinking or a slump in their body. They might then say, ‘it’s all too overwhelming’, or ‘I just don’t know’ and have multiple different examples of not being able to make a decision. Their head will have some pretty critical things to say about this, none of which are helpful, and so the cycle continues.

For some people, they do have some childhood memories. This can be useful, as they can then recall how their carers reacted or behaved in situations. It can be helpful to ask them what was expected of them growing up. Some people were encouraged to be grown up and they were praised for doing more adult things. Some were pushed to do better, but often didn’t receive praise for the achievements they actually made. Some were criticised and shamed if they did things wrong, or they were told off for being spontaneous and childlike.

Whatever the message, we internalise it and are are deeply affected by that message later on. These messages become beliefs and they affect the way that we behave and what we believe about ourselves deep down, these then get stored as a lived experience in the body. The job of the therapist is to notice these unconscious movements and responses, and bring the clients awareness to them.

One of the problems with developmental trauma is that it becomes so natural, it’s not in our conscious awareness, therefore it’s really hard to spot the physical evidence and body responses. The other difficulty with developmental trauma is the same as with any trauma, it doesn’t change in time, the reactions & coping mechanisms stay, the younger parts of us that are attached to the reactions, stay at the same young age. This means that when we react, we are reacting from a much younger part of ourselves but we are totally unaware of it and think it’s just us. We don’t know when it’s a triggered response.

The good thing is that these responses are pretty consistent, which is why they keep repeating. It’s can be really hard to try to behave differently. This means that if we begin to start observing ourselves in everyday life, it makes it easier to begin noticing these reactions and responses. If we can notice where our eyes are drawn to, if our body position shifts, if our breathing changes, then it gives us some clues as to what our body is doing, and why this might have made perfect sense in the past. It gives us a clue about what might be helpful and how we can bring a present moment experience to this triggered past one.

We can try things like, tapping things around us to feel things and hear the noise they make. Moving our feet inside our shoes, shaking our hands. Doing something that we can feel and experience right now. When we understand that we are taking care of a younger inner-self, it can make it easier to engage our adult brain and then try some different experiments.

If decision making is hard, then we have to start a retraining programme for ourselves, where we start with little decisions at first like tea or coffee, wearing a white t-shirt or a blue one, eating a cheese sandwich or a ham one. We’re replacing the fear of a negative consequence with curiosity, giving it a go and seeing what happens. We can also help these unconscious movements by waking up the unconscious a bit. For instance, when we make a cup of tea, we can try observing the order we do things and asking ourselves why we do it that way? If we drive, then we can try noticing the order of each step as we get into the car. Doing this can really help our observing part in its retraining programme. When we begin new experiments, it’s always enlightening and even amusing, it’s such a good way to help the unconscious be more seen and noticed.

When we listen to our bodies, even if we have no memory of our childhood experiences, we can bring some awareness to our behaviours that have come from that time. We can find things that will help us to manage these behaviours or coping mechanisms in our adult lives.

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How developmental trauma shows up in the body

Most of us understand what a traumatic event is. We often associate it with an accident, an attack, something terrible that is witnessed, etc. We know that extreme events can cause PTSD and trauma, however, we often miss or don’t fully understand developmental trauma. This is what I treat day in, day out, it is far more common and goes misdiagnosed and mistreated.

When we are little, we have very few defence mechanisms, we are far more vulnerable and we’re not able to understand complex situations. It’s much easier for us to then be terrified and overwhelmed, things that we wouldn’t normally give a second thought about can be a big event when we’re little. We usually recover from one-off events and often we don’t remember them at all. However, if we are consistently scared, if our punishment has been overly harsh, or if we are regularly shamed or humiliated, then this can result in developmental trauma.

I have many clients who actually have no clear memory of their trauma, they often have virtually no childhood memories and therefore no idea why they are struggling. Developmental trauma can have many different presentations, like feeling highly anxious for no apparent reason, they are often fearful and scared to go out amongst people, they may have panic attacks or dissociate easily. They often have body-related problems like IBS or unidentified pain, they may often have eating disorders and body image difficulties. They also may have self harmed, have substance addictions or a series of failed relationships. They all know there is something wrong but it can be difficult finding out what exactly is wrong, why it’s affecting them the way it is, and most importantly, what they need to get better.

99% of my clients have had lots of different prescription medications over the years. Many of them have been diagnosed with BPD, bipolar, ADHD, plus many more. As the medical profession are not trained to spot and treat developmental trauma, because it doesn’t usually come with flashbacks, the symptoms are treated with medication and the most they will be offered is talking therapy. Developmental trauma affects the body, the nervous system, all the regulation systems, the way we move, our posture and certainly our behaviour. When I begin working with people, they often are totally unaware of the movements their body is making and the reactions they have to certain things. It’s my job to notice these often subtle things, to spot patterns of behaviour and feed that back to my client. This way they can start noticing too and being curious helps them observe what’s happening. Because we know everything happens for a reason, the way the body responds can give us a huge clue as to why this might have been an effective strategy.

The most frequent things that I notice are: them pulling away when they talking about something, they go really quiet and still, they lose the ability to move certain parts of their body, or one half of them trying to hide. Developmental trauma will often show up in particular parts of the body, it’s not an overall uniform response. Sometimes the left and right sides of the body do completely different things. Clients will often have a certain place they sense the trauma, if they pull away or begin glancing over to one side, this will be consistent every time a particular subject is mentioned or thought about.

We bring up small pieces of memory, or a recent triggering event, then observe what the body does and give it a different experience. If our body tries to disappear, then we have to find ways to be seen safely and use resources to help achieve this.

It’s really hard for people with developmental trauma to work out what’s happening. They are so used to the body responses they don’t notice them. Also, if we have an activated part of the body, our first instinct is to stay away from it, to not pay attention to it. It takes an experienced therapist to make sense of all of this and help to find different ways to help and heal. Once the client gets on the right path, they can do so much on their own. Additionally, sometimes the memory comes back when the body trauma is revealed, but not always.

If developmental trauma was more widely known and understood, it would save so much heartache and time for everyone, including expense. Almost everyone I see for the first time has an overwhelming sense of relief, that finally someone gets them and knows what is needed for them to get better. It shouldn’t be such a mystery, having a troubled childhood is sadly an all too common experience, we should know how to help this.