Learning and Healing From Childhood Trauma

By Retreat Guru

Traumatic childhood events and the mental health challenges that follow don't have to be a life sentence. Abuse, neglect, and catastrophes like war or natural disasters don’t have to follow you through life, nor do the sleepless nights, strained personal relationships, and low self-esteem.

Never has there been more awareness and support to help people heal from childhood trauma. The surge in people looking for ways to heal themselves has created even more trauma-informed practitioners. With all the new methods for resolving childhood trauma, people no longer need to suffer in silence.

From talk therapy to neurofeedback to plant medicine, there are many different healing paths someone can take. The road may not be a straight line but part of the process is finding the right approach that works for you.

In this blog post, we look to unpack childhood trauma, how it develops in people, and what steps can be taken to help heal and grow.

What Is Childhood Trauma?

"Trauma isn't what happened to you, but what happens inside you as a result of what happened,"

- Dr. Gabor Mate

Childhood trauma is when a child goes through an event, or series of events, that cause long-term emotional, psychological, or physical harm. The type of traumatic events can vary, but they involve situations where a child has intense feelings of being threatened, frightened, or overwhelmed. 

There are many forms of childhood trauma that include physical harm, emotional abuse, neglect, bullying and more. Because the mind of a child is quite vulnerable, these events have a way of planting their seeds deep within us until they start to manifest in ways we don’t expect. 

Childhood trauma can make a lasting impact on someone’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It can also lead to more issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, difficulties in relationships and experiencing challenges at work or school. 

The earlier you can intervene, the better. But it’s never too late to get started.

According to Dr. Gabor Mate, a Vancouver-based physician, speaker, and bestselling author of several trauma-focused books, trauma demands focus and reaction. To understand it, you must focus on the traumatic event and your ongoing reaction to it by looking at the beliefs you carry about others, yourself, and the world that trauma creates deep inside us. 

"We may not be responsible for the world that created our minds, but we can take responsibility for the mind with which we create our world."

- Dr. Gabor Mate


The Effects of Childhood Trauma In Adulthood

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How childhood trauma manifests itself in adulthood can vary and is not always straightforward. For example, if a dog bites someone as a child, this could lead to them being afraid of dogs in adulthood, but trauma is about more than being afraid of dogs. Instead, a child might blame themself for the cause of a traumatic event or have persistent feelings of anger, guilt, or shame that spill over into other areas of life. 

The symptoms can disrupt daily life without the person consciously connecting the feelings to a past traumatic event. Childhood trauma can also lead to PTSD symptoms which can make it even harder to maintain healthy relationships and connect with others.

Symptoms are not always easy to connect to a specific event and can impact emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. Some symptoms to keep an eye out for include: 

  • Emotional Symptoms: Anxiety, depression, emotional dysregulation, or low self-esteem
  • Behavioral Symptoms: Substance abuse, self-harm, excessive risk-taking, or aggression
  • Cognitive Symptoms: Memory issues, problems with concentration, or negative thought patterns
  • Interpersonal Symptoms: Relationship difficulties, trust issues, or isolation
  • Physical Symptoms: Chronic health problems, non-medical physical symptoms, insomnia, or trouble sleeping
  • Psychological Symptoms: PTSD, dissociation, or hypervigilance
  • Functional Symptoms: Difficulties with work, relationship issues, or day-to-day functioning


Trauma can also lead to addiction and the impact it has on the brain and body. Substances can provide a sense of relief for the emotional and physical pain one feels.

In the past, addiction was viewed as a moral failure, brain disorder, or genetic condition, but now, some see it as another symptom of trauma. In his book, In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Maté outlines theories on how trauma is the root cause of addiction and shares stories of patients overcoming their addictions by facing childhood trauma.

Explaining Adverse Childhood Experiences

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Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) is a common lens that trauma is viewed through. These are potentially traumatic events in childhood that are known to have an impact on development and health later in life. 

Adverse Childhood Experiences have informed many practitioners and researchers how to think about trauma. These are experiences that happen before the age of eighteen, and while there are several formats, they can be grouped into ten main categories:

  • Physical Abuse - Intentional physical harm
  • Sexual Abuse - Unwanted sexual contact
  • Psychological Abuse - Intentional bullying or manipulation
  • Physical Neglect - Not having basic survival needs such as food, clothing, and shelter
  • Psychological Neglect - Essential emotional needs like affection not met
  • Witnessing Domestic Abuse - Violence between family members
  • Witnessing Substance Abuse - Family members with substance abuse problems
  • Witnessing Mental Health Difficulties - Close family member having mental health struggles
  • Imprisonment - A family member being incarcerated


Medical researchers have been collecting data on ACEs for some time now, tracking how different populations and people are affected by their upbringing. As with trauma, experiencing one or more ACEs dramatically increases the chances of mental or physical health conditions as adults, with research connecting ACEs to changes in brain development. Those who have experienced multiple ACEs having exponentially higher risk. 


The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma

The ways in which trauma affects people is still being understood. Two people may experience the same event but have very different responses. One might carry trauma from the event whereas the other does not. 

As we mentioned earlier, some symptoms of childhood trauma can manifest in adulthood as chronic mental and even physical conditions which include:

  • ADHD
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Personality disorders
  • Eating and sleep disorders


More recent findings when researching trauma's effects on physical health have been able to show the connection between childhood trauma and chronic disease. Some of these include:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Chronic pain
  • Heart disease
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Arthritis
  • Type 2 diabetes 
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Cancer


Looking into these connections is a relatively new area of study. The potential causes could be linked to the nervous system or changes to the body's production of cortisol and norepinephrine. A particularly common concept, popularized by the work of Stephen Porges, is that the nervous system is dysregulated which has led to the idea that the nervous system is 'storing' trauma

The nervous system and its far-reaching effects on the body could explain why trauma has such a connection with a long list of symptoms and medical conditions.

How to Heal Childhood Trauma

"Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another."

- Bessel van der Kolk, Author of The Body Keeps the Score 

Many survivors of trauma have difficulty trusting others. Isolation and disconnection can be considerable barriers to recovery, with research showing that isolation negatively impacts outcomes for those with PTSD. This can be a challenge since many findings show that supportive relationships and community are essential for truly healing trauma.

Medications like antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, painkillers, or sleeping medications can help manage symptoms of trauma in the short-term, but have been criticised for not addressing the root cause of the symptoms.

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In his book, The Body Keeps Score, Van Der Kolk writes, "Understanding why you feel a certain way does not change how you feel."

Identifying trauma is only the beginning of the process and the road to healing should be handled by trained and skilled practitioners for the best results. While some may find immense relief from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and medication, some may prefer one of the many other alternative therapies, healing modalities, and ceremonies that are available.

"I approach it as an empirical question: Let's see what works, and only the patient can be the judge of that," writes Van der Kolk. Indeed, it is common for people to try many different modalities before finding what works, which sometimes ends up being a combination of many things.

Here are some popular therapies and tools people use today for managing their symptoms of trauma or help resolve any latent childhood trauma in adulthood.


Talk therapy can be an incredible tool and is a great place to start. Exploring other therapies that incorporate play, art, music, theatre, movement, gardening, or animals, like dogs and horses, can be helpful.

Plant Medicine and Psychedelics

Administered safely by trained therapists, psychedelic therapy with MDMA and ketamine shows great potential to resolve trauma. Plant medicines like ayahuasca and psilocybin mushrooms can also be of benefit when administered by a skilled and trusted shaman during a plant medicine ceremony.

Somatic Therapy

Sometimes words cannot express the trauma, but the body knows exactly what happened or can point to feelings not easily expressed. Somatic Experiencing uses the nervous system to track body sensations that can help uncover, understand, and process trauma.

Family and Ancestral Work

Trauma can be passed genetically through intergenerational trauma. People who have traced the origins of feelings and patterns in their own lives to the roots in their family tree, or their ancestors, have experienced insight and relief. Modalities to explore include Internal Family Systems (IFS) and Family Constellations.


Frequently Asked Questions: How to Heal From Childhood Trauma


Will Childhood Trauma Ever Go Away?

No one can change the past, and traumatic events will always be part of one's life. The memory of these events can remain painful, but with solid support and by spending time in therapy or working with other healing modalities, it is possible to have relief from unwanted symptoms of trauma. 

At What Age Is Trauma Most Impactful?

One study suggests that abuse before the age of five increases the risk of depression and PTSD later in life. Several age groups below seventeen years who experienced trauma were at a higher risk of depression than those who experienced trauma as adults.

What Are the Coping Mechanisms for Adults Who Have Experienced Childhood Trauma?

There are many ways to cope with experiencing trauma. Family, friends, and community support are known to help people with trauma symptoms. Support groups, therapy, mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, yoga, and exercise can also be beneficial. It is best to avoid alcohol and drugs as coping mechanisms.

What is the Best Therapy for Childhood Trauma in Adults?

Therapy is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Finding the right therapist to build a relationship and trust with is equally as important as the type of therapy. Some people may need to meet different therapists and try different therapies to find what works for them.

Tags: Trauma

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