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Four Myths We Used To Believe About The Effects of Childhood Trauma


Everyone knows that trauma in childhood can cause problems later in life, but until recently, we totally misunderstood how this happens.

Here are four myths that have dominated our understanding of Childhood PTSD, and convoluted our approach to treatment:

Myth 1: Childhood PTSD is a psychological wound.

What we know now: We now know that the damage from early abuse, neglect and chronic stress is largely neurological -- in other words, it causes brain and nervous system changes. These changes, in turn, can cause cognitive impairment, emotional  and social problems and chronic disease. Though much of the damage can be reversed, it’s important to be aware of how these events can have such a broad impact on every part of our lives.  

Myth 2: The best thing for people who were traumatized is to talk about it.

What we know now: Focusing on your childhood traumas will not, by itself, produce recovery. While taking stock of what happened is a useful first step, putting attention on bad things can actually re-traumatize you, and in the re-traumatized state, it can be impossible to reason, remember or integrate information. This is one of the main reasons that talk therapy doesn’t always work very well for trauma, and why other methods of recovery are necessary. Focusing on childhood can also emphasize blame, which ultimately keeps you trapped.

Myth 3: Traumatized people need to explore the memories and feel the feelings

What we now know: The problem with Childhood PTSD is not so much the memories, but the unregulated emotions they trigger. In these hyper-emotional states we are prone to (and even crave) destructive behaviors. The sooner we can recognize that the brain and emotions have become dysregulated, the sooner we can take steps to re-regulate.  We can do this with quick interventions like stepping away, refraining from speaking, breathing deeply, writing our fears and resentments on paper, or counting to ten. We can also learn to stay better regulated through daily practices like regular writing, meditation, group exercises, and rhythmic movement. Once we learn to re-regulate, change becomes possible.

Myth 4: To Say That a Person Contributes to Her Own Problems is to Blame the Victim

Granted, we didn't ask for Childhood PTSD and what happened to us was not our fault. But messed up families can pass on some pretty dysfunctional beliefs and habits, and our own dysregulation can lead to self-defeating behaviors. We can't change the past and we're unlikely to change our families. So now we are the ones in the best position to change our lives.  Instead of pointing fingers, we can take action, even though it's hard and can take time. We can start by making strong decisions to care for our health, our thinking, and our choices.

Learning the truth usually brings a sense of relief to those of us who never fully benefitted from what I call "normal people solutions."  Knowing what does and does not work allow us to take control of our own healing and pursue strategies that actually work.


If you'd like to learn a simple strategy to calm intense emotions and re-regulate your brain, download these instructions here.

If you'd like to take a big step forward in your life, I invite you to check out my online course "Healing Childhood PTSD."

In December, my new course on dating and relationships (for people with Childhood PTSD) will be open for registration! If you want to be the first to get the announcement, you can add your name to this e-mail list.Heads up -- I may reach out to folks on this list to for input about topics you want to be sure I cover!


Anna Runkle is a mother and video producer in Berkeley CA. She publishes the blog Crappy Childhood Fairy that's all about ACEs and Childhood PTSD.


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My feeling is, is that it is about context because in the right context these myths aren't necessarily wrong.  The important thing is to recognise the victim or survivor and know that within them they have all the resources and skills to determine their own pathway, given, that we can create a safe place for people to explore their trauma and feel and release the pain and sadness that is impacting on their lives.  What we are seeing is that the main therapeutic models are not working, simply because the whole idea of imposing an idea or theory on to a vulnerable person, even with the best of intentions is counter intuitive and in some cases causes more harm.

Elizabeth Prewitt, ACEs Connection Staff posted:

I really like your list (especially with Jane's suggestion) and the title drawing...are you also an artist?  

Thanks Elizabeth -- You've honored me with this question -- perhaps one only an artist would ask. The art has a funny story.

Background: I do a jillion things, which is good and bad sometimes. I work, I have a husband and two teenage boys. In my free time I am an all-around creative type who draws, acts, sings, writes, gives inspirational talks and makes films. I also give a lot of time to support people who are rebuilding their lives after rough pasts and bitterness, helping them adopt the ideas and techniques that saved me from crippling Childhood PTSD and enabled me to blossom.

Professionally I used to be in marketing, public policy, clinic performance improvement and professional development. Life was compartmentalized -- the work-me and the real-me. Thanks to a terrifying period of unemployment in 2008, real-me had to find a way to support my kids FAST and my video company was born. What luck! All my work experiences came together into one big fruitful, creative enterprise, that continues to this day.

Two years ago I was finally in a place where I could launch my blog. It's demanded that I be authentic and courageous in a way that I could not access before. Let's face it, I'm countercultural. My past was pretty dark. Not everyone will like what I'm saying. 

So it started as an idea for a book. I'd written a self-help book in the past that was very earnest and professionally safe. But this same serious tone was ruining my efforts to tell my own story. It was coming out dry, depressing, clinical. I was writing this long explanation of the pitiful emotional impact of this remark made by a guy I once dated (He said: "You think you're special? You're like one in thirty to me!). And as I was writing it, I couldn't stop laughing! It came to me that a) when my CPTSD was active I couldn't read long things, b) my honest experience was the only thing that had ever been helpful to others and c) crying AND laughing at the same time was the BEST kind of healing epiphany I'd ever had. So the idea of cartooning these tragedies was born.

Some people love the drawings, others keep urging me to get better software! (I draw on Photoshop, which I barely know how to use, using my finger on my laptop's trackpad). I think I'm getting a little better at it, gradually. There's never time to do it perfectly and I think that's the charm. Perhaps that's the art of life, eh?

Thanks for posting this list, Anna. If I may make a suggestion...I'd change Myth #3 from:

Myth #3 β€” Traumatized people need to explore the memories and feel the feelings


Myth #3 β€” Traumatized people should explore the memories and feel the feelings on their own, without support or preparation. 

I think it's very important that people understand how their trauma histories contributed to health and behavior consequences; but doing without understanding ACEs science, which includes resilience practices, and without having supports in place (therapeutic, friends, community, etc.), as you point out, can take people backwards. That doesn't mean that there aren't tears, or sadness or anger when exploring the memories; those are important to healing and shouldn't be avoided. It does mean knowing how to manage the feelings or to get help with managing the feelings. 

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