Childhood trauma is the great untold secret shame of most abuse survivors. Whether it’s seen, heard, or experienced directly, violence of both the physical, sexual, and mental variety leaves scars for decades, quite often dismantling the adult lives of those who live on well after the incident occurs.
We reached out to our beloved therapist and Hope and Grace board member, Dr. Belisa Vranich, Psy.D., to learn more about what childhood trauma does to the brain, and how to overcome the resulting PTSD for a brighter future:
Hope and Grace Initiative: PTSD and adult survivors of abuse. What happens to the brain when a child is physically, verbally, mentally, or sexually abused?
Dr. Vranich: “For lack of a better term, that kind of trauma “freezes” you as a child. When you experience that kind of trauma, it’s so overwhelming and traumatizing that you hold your breath and freeze. You are smaller and/or weaker, and the trauma is happening to you. Your body, breath, and soul just kind of freezes, and you can remain in some aspect of it for years afterwards. The process of getting ‘unstuck’ or ‘unfrozen’ is part of therapy. The other aspect that happens is it gets written into your personal story, so it’s really hard to separate yourself and your future from the event, even if you have worked on getting out of your system. It becomes hard to extricate yourself from the event sometimes. I see people very often who will re-traumatize themselves in an effort to overcome the trauma.
Hope and Grace Initiative: Can you speak to that a little bit?
Dr. Vranich: “Well it’s not quite a counter phobic maneuver but it’s called repetition compulsion. It’s when you keep putting yourself in situations that are similar in attempt to gain control over it. Counter phobic maneuver is the extreme case, like a woman who has been sexually abused who becomes a prostitute. It’s running head on into the situation because you want to control it, and it’s usually not a good situation.”
Hope and Grace Initiative: Is it possible for people to become hypersexual after being sexually assaulted?
Dr. Vranich: “Yes, to a certain degree. That’s why it’s complicated because it’s very personal. Victims tend to repeat the situation and sometimes get re-victimized for that reason. This is very hard to put into general terms and without blaming the victim but once you’re aware that this is the problem, you need to be very conscious not to place yourself in situations where you are trying to overcome the original trauma.”
Hope and Grace Initiative: Other than repetition compulsion, how does abuse start to manifest itself as an adult? Is PTSD part of that or can it be?
Dr. Vranich: “Yes, if you have been traumatized, you are going to have some kind of PTSD. There is all this research right now saying that you can have 2nd generation PTSD from parents having PTSD. Often the person is fully functional, so sometimes they will get blamed from not having it together, but it winds up expressing itself in a variety of ways. You might end up having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so it’s not that you are an obsessive person who like things clean, but the PTSD is causing you to want to do these things in an attempt to soothe yourself. You get more OCD the more stressed out you get.”
Hope and Grace Initiative: How can you tell that your childhood trauma is informing or impacting your adult life?
Dr. Vranich: “I think you know whether you are over the trauma or not, but conversations with a therapist or licensed professional really help.”
Hope and Grace Initiative: How do you best handle the PTSD from childhood trauma?
Dr. Vranich: “I think you decide what you can live with and what bothers you. The big indicator is when the trauma is affecting your relationships or work. For instance, if you have OCD tendencies when you are anxious, does it affecting your relationships? Do you have issues enjoying sex or trusting others after sexual trauma? Do you have irrational fears of the dark or other complications like depression or agoraphobia, which is the fear of leaving your house or entering large, public spaces. If it affects your life negatively, it’s time to speak to a professional.”
Hope and Grace Initiative: What’s the course of action if the PTSD is having negative effects on your life?
Dr. Vranich: “You will have to go into therapy. When you deal with someone who has had a trauma happen years ago and they’ve been living with PTSD for a long time, they lead a very messy, chaotic life and relationships and friendships are dramatic. Getting feedback and experiencing healing therapies can truly change your life. If you’ve been living in chaos, fear, and disordered thinking and behavior since the trauma, you can experience a life you’ve never imagined. You don’t have to live that way. We’re here to help.
Hope and Grace Initiative: We love that idea. How do you best support someone who is recovering or suffering from childhood trauma-related PTSD?
Dr. Vranich: “It’s hard because you are trying to support them while at the same time not letting their behavior negatively disrupt your life. It is tough, but staying the course and ensuring that your behavior isn’t enabling their traumatic, disordered behavior is important. Sometimes you have to take a long deep look to ensure you’re helping them rather than encouraging them to stay stuck. Encourage them to seek and stay in treatment, and just love them through it as best you can without it disrupting your life.”