When I started my doctoral research, my original plan was to focus on working with parenting issues—more specifically the effects that parenting had on child development. What I learned during that time was that parenting has a huge and lasting effect on children, and is the basis for how we see the world and our roles in it. Many times I have heard from clients that a particular issue was no longer valid since it happened when they were children—the truth of the matter is that these things do stay with us no matter how long ago they occurred.
My research eventually headed toward men’s issues and peer support but even with this change I could not ignore the effects of childhood experiences. Children who grow up in abusive homes, homes with neglectful parents, or with unreasonably high demands and have little in the way of outward approval, are affected in negative ways. Perhaps not surprising, children from these types of homes are more vulnerable to acting out (often a means of attracting attention) and negative interactions from peers—including being bullied, being rejected by peer groups, and having unfulfilling relationships. The sense of isolation is intense and often the individual turns to substance use or some other unhealthy behavior (shopping, eating, gambling, promiscuous sex, etc.) to cope.
So how does this play into trauma? To begin with we need to look at the things that traumatize people. War experiences, being the victim of a violent crime, exposure to natural disasters, witnessing serious accidents or deaths, or even sudden loss. We can accept that these types of events have a negative effect on people, but interestingly not everyone is traumatized by these events. In fact, only a relatively small percentage of people who experience traumatic events will be traumatized.
So what separates those who are traumatized from those who are not? Not always, but often it seems that people suffering from trauma come from homes where they perceived a lack of parental support, or where there was abuse/neglect, or parents were uninvolved. The word “perceived” is important because it does not always have to be accurate, but the individual believed things to have been that way. For these people, being exposed to traumatic events triggers earlier feelings and thoughts and intensifies the experience.
Traumatic events trigger negative physical sensations in our bodies creating intense bodily memories that can be re-triggered. Also, the thoughts of being helpless or alone can be reinforced and trigger earlier memories that intensify the experience making the event for that person way worse than it might be for someone else. Often the key to working through trauma is to work through the related experiences.
My experience with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) has helped me see these connections and work with clients effectively toward getting through their trauma experiences. A big part of that is being open to the idea that earlier experiences are important to recognize and not be dismissed as being something that “happened a long time ago”. A popular EMDR saying is that ‘the past is the present”. If you are struggling with current issues and the response seems beyond what the situation calls for, you might consider therapy to work through these issues.