If you endured a traumatic experience as a child, it's possible your brain may have repressed the negative memories, leading to surprising situational and emotional challenges in your adult life. People who have blocked out pain from their childhood may have anxiety or have a fear of abandonment — which can be particularly frustrating if they don't know why. Though not all people who live with these conditions are survivors of abuse, it can help to know the signs you might be repressing negative childhood memories, so that you can seek support.
"These unresolved memories can stifle your growth and development and lead to a 'stunted' adulthood in terms of self-esteem and personal identity," psychotherapist Bruce W. Cameron, L.P.C., tells Bustle. "It is very important to go to therapy to unlock the memories and likely trauma."
While many of the symptoms listed below are not exclusively signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults, they are commonly found in people who come to know they were in fact repressing memories. You can, for example, experience anxiety without having gone through something traumatizing as a kid. Read on for some signs you might be repressing memories or old wounds from the past, as well as what you can do about it.
1. You Have Strong Reactions To Certain People
If you have a repressed childhood memory, you may find yourself feeling triggered or having strong emotional reactions to people who remind you of previous negative experiences, family therapist Jordan Johnson, L.M.F.T., tells Bustle.
"It's the body's 'alarm system' or way of warning [you] that this type of person is not safe," he says. It could be that this person, for whatever reason, reminds you of something or someone from your past, so your body is cautioning you to stay away.
While it's obviously good to be wary of strangers, this response can get out of control to the point where everyone feels like a threat. And that's when a therapist can be a big help. By seeking their advice, you can learn valuable ways to move past old trauma, and feel more at ease.
2. Specific Places Or Situations Freak You Out
In the same vein, you might notice that certain situations or places causes you anxiety. You might not be able to step foot in a grocery store without sweating or worrying, for example, or smell a certain food without panicking. One possible explanation is past trauma associated with that situation or place.
"When someone experiences a negative or traumatic event in childhood, their brain records the specific sensations (sights, sounds, smells, etc.) and brings that negative experience to memory when similar stimuli is encountered in the future," Johnson says. When that's the case, you may catch yourself in fight-or-flight mode and not know why.
3. It's Difficult To Control Your Emotions
"People who have unaddressed negative or traumatic events from childhood often struggle with mood regulation and managing strong emotions," Johnson says. So you might notice that, in certain situations, those around you might not be bothered by something that you are extremely bothered by. You also might find that you're easily startled, or that you go from zero to sixty with your anger. If this tendency to overreact sounds familiar, it can be a starting point for conversations with a therapist.
4. You Struggle With Fears Of Abandonment
Fear of abandonment can be a symptom childhood development disruptions, marriage and family therapist Lisa Bahar, L.M.F.T., L.P.C.C. tells Bustle. She says many people will have a strong emotional reaction to someone leaving them, for example, and feel emotionally dysregulated in a way that's disproportionate to the event itself. You might notice that you struggle to be away from your partner even for a night, or that you really don't like it when family goes out of own.
5. Friends Say You're "Acting Like A Child"
Acting a little immature on occasion isn't anything to worry about — everyone's entitled to a little outburst when truly frustrated, upset, or exhausted. But take note if it happens all the time, and especially if it affects your relationships with other people.
"Many times what occurs is the individual 'recapitulates' the child experience by regressing into child-like behaviors," Bahar says. "Some may regress into a child-like voice or demeanor that is unconscious." This might look like whining or crying, or stubborn behavior like refusing to get out of the car or leave the house.
6. You Often Feel Emotionally Exhausted
If most of your mental energy goes to suppressing your past, it only makes sense why you'd feel emotionally exhausted all the time. As Cameron says, it may even cause you to feel stifled in your relationships, to the point where you struggle to connect with others.
This could also be a sign of anxiety or depression, and not necessarily a sign of old trauma. With support, it can be possible to build yourself back up again, and have relationships that feel fulfilling, without experiencing the need to check out.
7. You Often Feel Anxious
If something traumatic happened in your past, Cameron says it can lead to anxiety as an adult. Keep in mind, however, that anxiety has roots in all sorts of things. Just because you feel anxious doesn't necessarily mean you experienced trauma as a child.
The best way to find out is by talking to a therapist, who can help you uncover things from your past. Together, you might discover that your anxiety is stemming from a traumatic experience. Once you know, you can start to make changes, and work on managing your anxiety.
8. You Have Trouble Managing Anger
Everyone experiences anger, and it's helpful to get it out in a way that's healthy (such as going to the gym, or talking with a friend). But if you find yourself stewing on a regular basis, or acting out in rage to the point it's scaring people or hurting your relationships, take note. As Cameron says, this type of anger may be a sign of repressed memories and trauma.
If any of these signs or side effects sound familiar, consider making an appointment to talk with a therapist. While the things on this list may point to something else, such as an anxiety disorder or depression, they may also be a sign of a repressed childhood trauma.
Bruce W. Cameron, L.P.C.
Jordan Johnson, L.M.F.T.
Lisa Bahar, L.M.F.T., L.P.C.C.
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