Four Myths We Used To Believe About The Effects of Childhood Trauma

Everyone knows that trauma in childhood can cause problems later in life, but until recently, we totally misunderstood how this happens.

Here are four myths that have dominated our understanding of Childhood PTSD, and convoluted our approach to treatment:

Myth 1: Childhood PTSD is a psychological wound.

What we know now: We now know that the damage from early abuse, neglect and chronic stress is largely neurological — in other words, it causes brain and nervous system changes. These changes, 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.  

Myth 2: The best thing for people who were traumatized is to talk about it.

What we know now: 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.

Myth 3: Traumatized people need to explore the memories and feel the feelings

What we now know: The problem with Childhood PTSD 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 the brain and emotions have become dysregulated, the sooner we can take steps to re-regulate.  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. We can also learn to stay better regulated through daily practices like regular writing, meditation, group exercises, and rhythmic movement. Once we learn to re-regulate, change becomes possible.

Myth 4: To Say That a Person Contributes to Her Own Problems is to Blame the Victim

Granted, we didn’t ask for Childhood PTSD and what happened to us was not our fault. But messed up families can pass on some pretty dysfunctional beliefs and habits, and our own dysregulation can lead to self-defeating behaviors. We can’t change the past and we’re unlikely to change our families. So now we are the ones in the best position to change our lives.  Instead of pointing fingers, we can take action, even though it’s hard and can take time. We can start by making strong decisions to care for our health, our thinking, and our choices.

Learning the truth usually brings a sense of relief to those of us who never fully benefitted from what I call “normal people solutions.”  Knowing what does and does not work allow us to take control of our own healing and pursue strategies that actually work.


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