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What does childhood trauma look like in adults?

Sitting listening to a record player may be a distant memory, or even further removed as the experience of our grandparents. Hardly any of us enjoy vinyl playing over the speaker anymore. Still, a record player proves an effective metaphor when talking about trauma and its impact on the brain.

Records, when bumped or jostled while playing, can get scratched. Then, as the record plays, the needle might get stuck in the scratch and be unable to play through the song to its end. As the needle finds it's way into a groove (one that will get deeper and more pronounced each time the record is played) the same line of a song will begin to play over and over, just until you can't stand it anymore and your favorite record becomes a frustrating listening experience. Even when you pick a different song—when the record ends, the needle may jump back into that deepest groove and play that most-played song over and over again.


Our brains are a lot like the record player, and the scratches or grooves are like the trauma we experience. We tell ourselves narratives about the trauma (i.e. the one line in the song playing over and over) and we get stuck in them until we can't seem to play past them. It's almost like our brains can't finish the track and move on to the next song.

According to the American Psychological Association, “A traumatic event is one that threatens injury, death, or the physical integrity of self or others and also causes horror, terror, or helplessness at the time it occurs.”

Thankfully, there are a lot of songs our brains can play through. There are deep grooves where the needle can fall and play on repeat music of safety, support, and security. It is possible for these songs to keep playing, even as traumatic events come into our lives.

It is challenging, however, for the positive, stabilizing music to play when the most familiar song on the track—the one that gets the most plays and attention—is one of pain, sadness, shame, hurt, abuse, or fear. Despite our attempts to try and play those positive songs, the grooves might be deep enough that the needle just gets stuck and can't move on, no matter how badly we want it to do so.


As children, we develop what psychologists call "childhood schemas" i.e. our regards towards ourselves and our relationships with others, including the world around us. These schemas can develop throughout our lifetimes, and can be functional or dysfunctional to varying degrees.

Our brains work very hard to make sense of the world around us and our experiences in it. Our brains can teach us that the world is a good and safe place, which is what happens when our experiences are positive. They help us internalize messages such as, "I am loved and I deserve love" or "I have inherent value."

Our brains can also teach us that the world is a bad and scary place, which is what happens when our experiences consist of abuse, hurt, anger, pain, shame, or other painful emotions. We can perceive the world as an unpredictable place where something bad can happen to us at any moment.

As we grow into adulthood, we don't grow out of the schemas we developed as children. Even an adult who experienced a traumatic event 10, 20, or 30 years ago can find themselves launched into a "trauma song"—sliding into that deep groove—in seemingly sudden and/or random moments. Triggers, as they're called, may elicit shifts in moods, flashbacks, dissociation, thinking patterns, and a variety of responses, especially for those with a complex trauma history. This is why it's so important to work with a therapist to identify triggers so that you don't end up with your trauma song stuck on repeat. A good therapist can help you identify patterns and build new ones, especially with treatment modalities like EMDR.


When our childhood schemas are dysfunctional (whatever degree of dysfunction that may be), then they can affect our relationships, views of ourselves, and interactions with the world around us. The SAMHSA’s National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative (NCSTI) reports that by the age of 16, two-thirds of children report experiencing at least one traumatic event. When we've experienced trauma in childhood, it can show up in our emotions, bodies, and behaviors as adults.

EMOTIONS - adults who experienced childhood trauma may feel emotions that seem like they come out of nowhere or do not have a direct source. Some of these emotions include: anger, anxiety, emotional instability, unresponsiveness, depression, and panic attacks.

BODIES - they may find it difficult to focus, feel shaky at times, lack energy, experience more frequent illness, and/or have trouble sleeping, including night terrors.

BEHAVIORS - the emotions and physical symptoms may then manifest as compulsions, implusive behaviors, isolating ourselves from others, eating disorders, or "numbing out" and/or becoming calloused. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, strong connections exist between childhood trauma and high-risk behavior such as smoking, having unprotected sex, and experiencing chronic illness such as heart disease and cancer. Some reactions may even seem childish or immature.

At Dr. Christy Kane LLC, our trauma-informed therapy techniques allow you to navigate your repressed childhood trauma at your own pace. You will learn the tools you need to accept your trauma and move forward in your life. If you're ready to start living your life to its fullest contact us today.


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