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Childhood trauma

15 Signs of Repressed Childhood Trauma

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13 min

15 Signs of Repressed Childhood Trauma

We all experience times when things seem overwhelming, and it can be hard to pinpoint why. You may get frustrated or withdrawn more quickly, or there’s just a general feeling of unease. 

These experiences, along with fuzzy or incomplete memories, could be signs of repressed childhood trauma. 

And there’s no blame here; we don’t need to dwell on the past.  The goal is simply to understand ourselves better.  For example, do you ever feel shy or anxious in social settings, even though you know it’s safe? Perhaps you have trouble trusting people, even those close to you.

This article will clear things up. We’ll explore 15 signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults so you can recognize them and take steps toward your personal happiness. 

What is repressed childhood trauma

Early life trauma can be any event that feels too big for a child to handle. This might include such types of childhood trauma as difficult situations, neglect, bullying, emotional or physical abuse, or losing someone close.

But how do we define whether trauma is repressed or not? Sometimes, to manage the overwhelming feelings that come with trauma, children might unintentionally push those experiences out of their conscious memory. 

While this can be a coping mechanism at the moment, it’s essential to understand that these experiences can still have a significant impact, even if the memories aren’t clear.

Psychologist Pauline Peck suggests that our brains could provide insights into suppressed memories via experiences similar to dreams. It’s “something that doesn’t feel like a coherent narrative. You might have bits and pieces of memory or have a strongly felt “sense.”

There are different viewpoints among experts on whether memories can be truly forgotten. 

It’s also important to remember that not everyone who experiences trauma will repress their memories. But what is clear is that childhood trauma can resurface in adulthood in many ways.

Exploring the symptoms of repressed childhood trauma in adults can be a valuable first step toward your well-being. 

To gain a deeper understanding, let’s first focus on the possible causes.

What is behind childhood trauma in adults

Some difficult experiences in childhood, also known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), can have lasting effects. These marks might show up later as grown-ups with feelings or behaviors that are hard to handle. 

Here are some of the common causes of repressed trauma:

  • Parents were mean or hurting us (signs of physical or emotional abuse in adults).
  • Not getting the love and care we needed (emotional or physical neglect).
  • Seeing something scary or distressing (like a life-threatening accident).
  • Losing caregivers (divorce, abandonment trauma, or death).
  • Going through a tough time like sickness or being scared by something at the doctor’s.
  • Living in a place that felt unsafe (an unstable environment where parents have substance use disorders).
  • Sexual trauma, including incest and sibling sexual abuse.

Okay, some of the causes are understood. Now, it’s time to take a look at some signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults. Are you ready? Let’s do it.

15 symptoms of repressed trauma in grown-ups

Before diving deeper, there is the thing: childhood trauma responses in adults can be obvious or hidden. This list might offer clues about whether past experiences are worth exploring.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s childhood is unique, and how we remember things can be complicated. These signs might apply to different situations.

If something resonates with you, a therapist can be a valuable resource to help you explore it safely and with support. Okay, let’s start!

1. Mental health issues

Why? People who have experienced difficult situations as children may be more prone to certain mental health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety and worry: Childhood trauma can make you feel on edge or constantly worried. This might be related to anxiety disorders.

Do you worry excessively, with or without reason? If so, try the Breeze app. Our in-depth tests, self-observation courses, and many more helpful resources can be on your way to a calmer, happier you.

  • Turning to substances: Difficult human emotions can be overwhelming, and some people might use substances to cope.
  • Feeling down or hopeless all the time: A history of neglect can make it harder to feel good about yourself, which can be linked to depression. 
  • Trauma after a scary event: If you experienced something frightening as a child, it might affect you even as a grown-up. This could show up as childhood PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder) or C-PTSD in adults. So yes, PTSD can be from childhood trauma.
  • Difficulty with relationships: Some people who experienced emotional neglect or weren’t treated right in childhood might struggle to connect with others. This could be related to Borderline personality disorder (BPD).

2. Low self-esteem as a second name

We all have moments where our inner critic gets a little loud. But how often does it happen?

For some people, these critical thoughts might be rooted in earlier experiences. Difficult childhoods can leave an ongoing impact. Feelings of worthlessness or guilt might linger and influence how we view ourselves today.

3. Constantly in shame mode

Many adults with childhood trauma might be faced with feelings of constant shame. This feeling can be overwhelming and make you feel deeply flawed or like you’ve made a terrible mistake.

When shame sticks around for a long time, it can become heavy. Here are some signs you might be carrying this burden:

  • constantly asking yourself, “Why do I feel so guilty?” even for things that might not be your fault.
  • Withdrawing from people you care about.
  • Apologize a lot, even when it’s not your responsibility.
  • It’s hard to say no to people, even when you should.
  • You constantly need someone to tell you it’s okay.
  • It’s easy to feel self-conscious, as if everyone is judging you.

The critical thing to remember is that this doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. We all make mistakes, and nobody is perfect.

Everyone experiences shame, and there are always ways to manage it.

4. Attachment issues

Have you ever wondered why some people hesitate to get close to others? Right, childhood enmeshment trauma may play a role. It’s totally normal to be wary of getting close again if you’ve been hurt before. This can sometimes make it hard to build new relationships or even lead you to push away the people who care about you. 

5. Avoiding people

Sometimes, pulling away from social situations can be tempting when feeling down on ourselves. Maybe we worry people won’t like the “real us,” or maybe staying alone feels familiar, like an old sweater. 

Have you ever found yourself canceling plans because of negative self-talk? That can be one of the signs of repressed memories.

But the truth is, staying isolated can make those feelings of low self-esteem even stronger. It’s like a cycle that feeds itself. We feel down, so we avoid people, which makes us feel even more alone and reinforces those negative thoughts.

6. Hope? Haven’t heard of that

Childhood trauma can leave us feeling helpless. We might start to believe we have no control over what happens to us. And when things feel bleak, it’s hard to imagine things ever improving, making it even harder to take steps toward healing.

I liked the way Michelle Obama once said: “You may not always have a comfortable life, and you will not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once, but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have because history has shown us that courage can be contagious, and hope can take on a life of its own.”

Just remember, you don’t have to carry this pain forever. There is hope, even if it’s hard to see right now.

7. Emotions take over

Sadness hits you out of the blue? Maybe you experience frequent mood swings or struggle to control your anger. These could be signs of unresolved childhood trauma, too. 

Many adults who went through trauma in their youth carry the weight of those experiences, and it can affect their emotional regulation, too.

In fact, recent research suggests that trauma can impact the developing brain in ways that are still being learned. This might influence areas involved in stress, fear, and managing emotions. 

Over time, this could make some people more vulnerable to experiencing fear and strong emotions.

Repressed childhood trauma in adults

8. Flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and other triggers 

If you’ve experienced childhood trauma, you might be familiar with some of these things, like emotional triggers in adulthood, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or just stressful situations. Let’s have a closer look.

  • Flashbacks: These are vivid memories of the traumatic event that feel very real and can be upsetting. Flashbacks are more like a dream where you’re right back in that moment. It feels super real, even scary, and you might forget you’re not actually there.
  • Intrusive thoughts: Unwanted thoughts or images about the trauma that can pop into your mind at any time.
  • Emotional triggers: Certain sights, sounds, smells, or situations can bring back memories of the trauma and cause you to feel emotional distress.
  • Stressful situations: Events that cause stress, like relationship problems or financial difficulties, can make it more likely to experience flashbacks or other trauma symptoms.

9. Dissociation 

Yes, that’s also one of the possible symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood. But what is it? Dissociation is basically feeling disconnected from yourself or your surroundings. It’s like a temporary mental escape in response to something stressful or overwhelming.

How to understand that? I’ve got an idea:

  • Imagine daydreaming so intensely you feel spaced out, like you’re not really there.
  • Or you’ve been on autopilot while driving, not really remembering the whole trip.
  • In some cases, it can feel more extreme, like watching yourself from outside your body. 

So, it can be a coping mechanism for overwhelming situations. During these episodes, people may feel disconnected from themselves or reality. It’s often triggered by stress or upset, but it can occur anytime. 

Signs also include emotional numbness, out-of-body experiences, feeling unreal, zoning out, dreamlike states, and memory problems.

10. Memory loss

Have you ever asked yourself,Why can’t I remember my childhood?” That’s the thing. Memory gaps may also be a sign of repressed childhood trauma. 

It’s important to understand that some trauma survivors may have difficulty accessing childhood memories. 

This can be due to a protective response called dissociation (as discussed earlier), where a child unconsciously detaches from past experiences.

11. False recalling

Misremembering is a very vivid symptom of repressed memories. Along with memory loss, there might be things you don’t remember correctly. 

Our understanding of memory is still evolving, and researchers suggest that childhood trauma can sometimes lead to inaccurate recollections of youth events.  

These false memories can feel very real, even though they may not reflect what actually happened. So, they may be the mind’s attempt to cope with gaps in memory.

12. Concentration

While we all experience lapses in concentration, this also can be one of the effects of childhood trauma in adulthood. 

Sometimes, it’s hard to concentrate because our minds are trying to protect us from difficult memories. This can make it easy to get distracted, forget things, and feel scattered. 

These experiences are common, and while they can be mistaken for ADHD, they can also be signs of trauma.

13. Regular pain

Sometimes, childhood trauma can show up in physical ways. It’s like our bodies remember those tough times. Here’s why it might happen:

  • Old bumps and bruises: Sometimes, rough times can leave ouchies that stick around. For example, you may have fallen off your bike badly as a kid, and your wrist still gets sore sometimes, even though it healed long ago.
  • Stress acting up: Yucky feelings from the past can turn into headaches or tight muscles. Imagine feeling anxious before a big test. The anxiety can cause headaches, stomachaches, or other physical pains. 
  • Emotions showing up in pain: Sometimes, stuff we haven’t dealt with can be pain in our bodies. Maybe you felt sad a lot as a child and never really talked about it. Now, whenever you feel miserable again, your stomach might hurt. 
  • Being extra alert: Or hypervigilance, in other words. If we’ve been through something scary, our bodies might stay on high alert, making muscles tense.

Adults with childhood trauma can experience a wide variety of physical symptoms due to somatization

14. Health problems 

This symptom of repressed childhood trauma can mean our state of health. Living with chronic pain can be tough, and sometimes, other health issues might tag along. 

Stress from past experiences weakens the body, while unhealthy coping mechanisms and brain development changes can increase the risk of illness as a response to trauma in adults.

Difficult upbringings often come with added stress, making it harder to stay healthy and care for ourselves.

15. Body image 

And last but not least. Childhood trauma can lead to body dysmorphia. It can cause shame and guilt, leading to low self-esteem and a negative body image.  

You might develop negative beliefs about yourself or turn to food for comfort, which can also cause eating disorders.

Now you’ve got a complete answer to your question, “What does childhood trauma look like in adults?” How many of them could you relate to?

How to treat childhood trauma in adults 

Sometimes, it gets weighty in order to manage the effects of childhood experiences as a grown-up.

That’s why it’s important to know treatment options for childhood trauma in adults. 

Starting your journey with talking to a therapist can be a big step, and it can also be really supportive. There are different approaches therapists can use, and some that might be helpful include things like CBT or EMDR.  

Other things that can improve your well-being include yoga, meditation, or mental health apps.

For example, Breeze offers tools for checking your mental health and tips for improving your life. Also, you’ll always have a daily motivational quote and discover many hidden things about yourself through our courses.

Healing takes time, but there are always resources that can help you along the way.

Hannah Schlueter, MA, LAC, shared her thoughts about repressed childhood trauma
Addressing childhood trauma can sometimes feel like a double-edged sword; processing the traumatic events is painful and uncomfortable, but continuing to repress or avoid the childhood trauma can impact you both emotionally and physically. Seeking the resources available to you can lead you to begin your healing journey. While there may not be an easy answer, confronting your childhood trauma in a safe space will allow you to no longer be controlled by what happened to you and begin to live a more satisfying, meaningful life.
Hannah Schlueter, MA, LAC photo

Reviewed by Hannah Schlueter, MA, LAC

Hannah is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She sees kids, teens, and adults...