Four Things The Mental Health Industry Got Wrong About Childhood Trauma

Everyone knows that trauma in childhood causes problems later in life, but until recently, the real mechanism of these problems has been misunderstood. Here are four key ideas that may help you see the problem differently:

  1. Recent research has shown that abuse, neglect and other traumas cause brain changes in children. The damage caused by traumatic events used to be interpreted almost solely as psychological. We now know that the damage is largely neurological — in other words, brain damage. This damage, in turn, can cause cognitive impairment, emotional  and social problems and chronic disease. Though much of the damage can be reversed, it’s important to be aware of how these events can have such a broad impact on every part of our lives.  
  2. Focusing on your childhood traumas will not, by itself, produce recovery. While taking stock of what happened is a useful first step, putting attention on bad things can actually re-traumatize you, and in the re-traumatized state, it can be impossible to reason, remember or integrate information. This is one of the main reasons that talk therapy doesn’t always work very well for trauma, and why other methods of recovery are necessary. Focusing on childhood can also emphasize blame, which ultimately keeps you trapped
  3. Learning to regulate your emotions makes change possible. Traditional therapy often focuses on visiting memories and feeling your feelings. But with Childhood PTSD, the problem is not so much the memories, but the unregulated emotions they trigger. In these hyper-emotional states we are prone to (and even crave) destructive behaviors. The sooner we can recognize that this “flooding” is happening, the sooner we can interrupt the flood. We can do this with quick interventions, like stepping away, refraining from speaking, breathing deeply, writing our fears and resentments on paper, or counting to ten — or ongoing practices like daily writing, meditation, exercise and connecting with like-minded others.
  4. Instead of talking about it, taking action and making strong decisions about your life is the most powerful way to change your health, your thinking, and your behavior. Granted, past trauma can have a big impact on your functioning today, and messed-up families can pass on some dysfunctional beliefs and habits. But your past can’t change and your family is unlikely to change. It is you and only you who can change your life, and everything now depends on your willingness to take action.
By |2019-02-07T15:39:10+00:00October 26th, 2016|6 Comments

About the Author:

I'm the author of the Crappy Childhood Fairy blog, which offers advice based on my own experience and reading. I live with my husband and kids, and run a small business in the San Francisco Bay Area.


  1. Joe November 13, 2016 at 8:11 pm - Reply

    I’ve found talk therapy extraordinarily helpful, with a trauma-informed clinician. Sometimes, I need to tell my childhood stories because I’ve found their threads in my present life; it can be hard to find a safe person to do this work with. I mean, I love my friends and coworkers, but I really don’t want them to know the gory details (and I’m sure they don’t, either).

    • Anna Runkle November 13, 2016 at 8:53 pm - Reply

      I hear you, Joe. Trauma informed clinicians will, I hope transform the profession and change lives. I’m happy you are finding what works


  2. Ruth-Anne West November 28, 2016 at 11:06 pm - Reply

    So hi again. I’m a trauma informed clinician and the obnoxious trauma informed advocate at my agency. I want to say many many things but instead will just high five your post.

  3. Anna Runkle November 29, 2016 at 1:04 am - Reply

    Sounds like we’ll have to talk sometime. Lots to discuss. Feel free to e-mail me at [email protected]

  4. […] from the outside, from the perspective of people with different genes and different childhoods. But as with a lot of standard treatment approaches, we folks with childhood PTSD sometimes need a custom […]

  5. […] doesn’t seem to make sense, but sometimes talking about traumatic events makes things worse. Dr. Van Der Kolk (from the quote) talks about veterans with PTSD who get used to telling a […]

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