Childhood Trauma & Emotional Numbness

What is Trauma?

Trauma is an event or series of events that are so overwhelming and threatening to our life or sanity that a person cannot cope.  There are 3 main types of traumas

  • Acute – These results from a single stressful or dangerous event such as an accident, rape, assault, or natural disaster.
  • Chronic – These results from repeated and prolonged exposure to highly stressful events. Examples include cases of child abuse, bullying, or domestic violence. (This can be physical, psychological, emotional or a combination).
  • Complex – It is a result of exposure to varied and multiple traumatic events or experiences. 

What is an emotion?

An emotion is a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others. 7 core emotions are:

Joy😀, Fear😨,   Anger 😡,     Disgust 🤢    Sadness  😥  Contempt   🤪 Surprise 😱

However, we have hundreds of emotions and studies suggest that we experience at least one emotion 90% of the time with positive emotions being 2.5 times more frequent than negative feelings.

Emotional numbness

Emotional numbness (a trauma response) is when a person feels numb to emotions and as a result, is unable to experience a range of feelings. It’s that flat feeling of neither being happy or sad about things.

It can happen because of physical or emotional pain due to trauma (including childhood trauma), where our psyche disconnects or numbs out feelings to protect us from further pain caused by traumatic events in our lives. The emotion stays frozen because is not safe for the child to express his or her reality within their environment. Instead of expressing that they are sad, angry, and frightened, they know it is not safe to do so and put on a façade or a mask and pretend they are unaffected by the events and to the world, they look “happy enough”. This is a defense mechanism and generally not conscious. It can be temporary but in many cases, the victim can continue to wear the mask of their false self throughout their lives because it is too scary to show their real self (i.e., their vulnerabilities).   This will most definitely result in difficulties forming satisfying and healthy relationships during adulthood.

Is it not good to block out negative emotions?

While emotional numbing is necessary to block out or shut down negative feelings and experiences to protect our psyche from overwhelming, it also shuts down the ability to experience pleasure, engages in positive interactions and social activities, and interferes with openness for intimacy, social interests, and problem-solving skills.

If this is not resolved it carries into our adult lives where our emotions are frozen and while you will have some sensitivity to your feelings, they will be limited in range.   Ask yourself the question, when is the last time you felt so much happiness you could burst?  Or that you had a good cry when you were sad?   Can’t remember?  Perhaps you are experiencing emotional numbness due to childhood trauma.

How do I know if I experienced childhood trauma?

Trauma occurs when children are exposed to events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope with what they have just experienced. 

Childhood traumatic events can have negative, lasting effects on health and well-being. These experiences range from

  • Sexual abuse
  • Separation from a parent or sibling due to death or divorce
  • Serious illness
  • Intrusive medical procedures
  • Domestic violence (experienced or witnessed)
  • Neglect which can be physical, emotional, or psychological

When childhood trauma is not resolved, a sense of fear and helplessness carries over into adulthood, setting the stage for further trauma.  A consistent thread that runs through adults who experienced childhood trauma is a tendency to compensate for the deep emotional scars in dysfunctional ways and suppress emotions (especially anger).  This is very common in adults of childhood trauma.  The effects of childhood trauma on adults also include mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Many also suffer addiction and eating disorders in parallel with these conditions.

How can psychotherapy help heal childhood trauma and emotional numbing?

Emotions are meant to be felt and valued. Trauma creates a disconnection of our emotions in the psyche. Psychotherapy can help to join the fragmented experiences together bringing a sense of connection and wholeness to your experience. 

The goal in therapy would be to identify and release painful emotions from childhood while focusing on improving self-esteem and self-compassion to create a healthy life.  Therapy will allow you to slowly work through your negative experiences and acknowledge and feel the appropriate emotion pertaining to traumatic events in your life and help you to finally shed that false self and allow the unique person you are to shine through.

If you are suffering from the effects of childhood trauma and or emotional numbness, you can contact me via my website www.serenitypsychotherapy.ie

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