How much do traumatic experiences as a child affect people as an adult?
Childhood trauma will affect the life of an adult in very significant ways. Traumatic experiences during childhood may or may not. Traumatic experiences can leave a big mental scare on a child into adulthood, or not. They can affect brain development, or not. They can change the child’s personality to the extent of developing a personality disorder, or not. It depends!
It is common to get confused when talking about trauma because the word is used lightly and to refer to different things. Some people assume that experiencing a traumatic event is a “death sentence” but developing trauma takes much more than just having a traumatic experience.
It is like saying that if you experience a tornado, you’ll become handicapped or disabled. You could, but not by default.
For you to be “disabled” something needs to happen to your body, a wound that leaves a mark forever, like losing an eye, or a leg. In the same way, in order to “suffer” trauma after a traumatic event, something needs to happen to your body for you to be hurt on a more permanent basis. In terms of trauma, that “loss” is the dysregulation of your nervous system. Your body will adapt to function in a demanding and inefficient way because it learned that you could not survive otherwise. That takes time and a lot of disarrays to become long-lasting. The body prefers to function correctly than to stay “ill.”
Still, there may be many scratches left by the traumatization, but the scratches themselves won’t be as incapacitating as the wound —dysregulation in the case of trauma.
Experiencing a traumatic event can make your nervous system go through an arduous adjustment of tasks, to deal with the intense fear to die or succumb. Your body may not be able to go back to normal functioning after that. There are many changes in the physiology and functions of the different systems of the body due to the different assignments of energy consumption. Some organs will get more energy than others, and some parts of the brain will get less activation than others; all due to keeping working in the task of surviving. This happens a lot to children because they don’t know how to protect themselves, and therefore the autonomic nervous system assumes it has to do it itself, and stays working in survival mode for prolonged periods of time unless there is a caregiver (or a person close enough) that provides a sense of safety. Then the body will try to bounce back to regular functioning. That’s is called resilience. If there is no resilience and/or no caregiver to regulate the child, the changes will stay as a permanent wound. The person will have an emotional disadvantage.
There are significant scars left from a traumatic event even if trauma doesn’t develop as a disorder. These scars can be debilitating for sure. Many of them can incapacitate you for a long time; sometimes forever. But they can also be seen as painful marks instead of as irreparable damage. The most significant ones are memory and sense of self.
Memory: traumatic memories can stay vivid in your mind for a long time as warning or reminders of danger. They are there to make sure you stay alert if encounter similar threatening situations. Interesting enough, these vivid memories of the event are almost an indicator that you didn’t develop trauma. If you had, your brain would have managed to fragment the memory and to store the most significant pieces with an emotional charge, while sending other pieces to inaccessible storage. People with trauma lose the context of the event, get triggered by random stimuli, and can’t remember many chunks of what happened.
Sense of self: traumatic events change the narrative of the personal story. Many people rewrite their stories revolving around the event and over-identifying themselves with it. That can create confusion of who they are or were, and feeds into unhealthy emotions like guilt and shame. Victimization can arise as a strategy to navigate the environment, together with a hidden self-reproach. If trauma has developed as a disorder, perception gets distorted and reality changes meaning, but if there is no full-blown disorder, people may stay stuck in a self-defeating account.
The consequences in adulthood
If a kid fell ill with trauma, many of the regular development may have been compromised. That can have severe consequences on the life of that person. Just to name a few:
medical problems: inflammation, immune system, digestive system, metabolic issues, etc.
lack of trust, pleasure, faith.
The list can go on and on. The more traumatized the child —meaning the more severe the situation and the response— the more difficult life will be for that person.