Signs of Repressed Childhood Trauma in Adults

By Jenni Jacobsen, LSW

Traumatic experiences that occur during childhood can follow people into adulthood, especially if trauma is untreated. Even if the trauma has passed, the brain still remembers it, and being reminded of the trauma can trigger an intense reaction. Understanding signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults can help you to determine if it’s time to seek treatment so that you can heal. 

What Is Childhood Trauma?

Experts have described childhood trauma as experiencing an event that is scary, dangerous or violent. Childhood trauma can also occur from watching a loved one experience something that threatens their life or safety. Some examples of childhood trauma include: 

  • Being a victim of abuse or neglect
  • Witnessing a natural disaster or terrorist attack
  • Being exposed to domestic violence
  • Living through a war or a parent’s deployment
  • Being involved in a serious accident
  • Having a loved one die by violence

The 10 ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences)

The term ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) is used to describe traumatic events that occur during childhood. Research has shown that people who have been exposed to more ACEs are at increased risk of health problems, mental health issues and addiction during their teenage and adult years. 

The ten items included on the list of ACEs are:

  • Emotional abuse (being sworn at or called names)
  • Physical abuse (being slapped, kicked or punched)
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional neglect
  • Physical neglect (not having basic needs for food, shelter and supervision met)
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Having a family or household member with a mental illness
  • Having a family or household member who is addicted to drugs or alcohol
  • Parental divorce
  • Experiencing the incarceration of a family or household member 

Childhood Trauma and Memory Loss

Individuals who have experienced childhood trauma may have difficulties with memory. After all, one of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is avoidance of upsetting memories associated with a traumatic event. People who have signs of repressed childhood trauma may push memories into the subconscious in an effort to avoid thinking about them. 

It’s also helpful to understand that traumatic events can damage the hippocampus, an area of the brain that plays an important role in memory. Some studies have shown that ACEs are linked to a reduction in the size of the hippocampus. More specifically, sexual abuse is associated with a reduction in hippocampus volume. Sexual abuse can also contribute to structural abnormalities that cause problems with short-term and episodic memory. This means that people with a history of trauma may struggle to remember details of personal events, such as when they happened, who was involved and where the event occurred. 

Effects of Childhood Trauma

When childhood trauma goes untreated, it can impact physical, mental and emotional functioning into adulthood. In fact, childhood trauma is linked to an increased risk of numerous physical health problems, including cancer, stroke, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. This is because the chronic stress from trauma elevates levels of stress hormones in the body, which takes its toll over time.

Given that trauma threatens a person’s sense of safety and security, it is no surprise that childhood trauma can have a negative impact on mental health functioning. A recent study found that being a victim of childhood trauma increases the risk of anxiety, depression, PTSD, suicidal ideation, conduct disorder and ADHD. 

Childhood trauma is also linked to difficulty with emotional functioning. Researchers have found that individuals with a history of childhood trauma report high levels of psychological distress and reduced emotional wellbeing. Further, they are more likely to experience difficulties functioning in daily life as a result of emotional problems. 

Childhood trauma is linked to difficulty with emotional regulation because trauma interferes with the developing brain and negatively impacts its ability to cope with stress. Experiencing abuse makes a person hypersensitive to signs of threat in the environment. It also has a negative effect on the prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in regulating emotions. 

Signs of Repressed Childhood Trauma in Adulthood 

When you’ve repressed traumatic memories from childhood, you may experience symptoms associated with these memories in adulthood. 

Anxiety

People who have a history of trauma become hypersensitive to threats within their environments, as even the slightest sign of danger can trigger memories of the trauma. This can lead to a constant state of anxiety because a person feels as if they are always on the lookout for danger. 

Childish Reactions

Childhood trauma interferes with the development of the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in emotional regulation and impulse control. In individuals with a history of trauma, there is reduced activity in the prefrontal cortex and increased activity in the amygdala, which is the emotional part of the brain. This can result in childlike reactions to upsetting events because the rational part of the brain is underactive but the emotional brain is overly reactive. 

Intense Mood Swings

Since trauma has a negative effect on the prefrontal cortex, individuals with a history of childhood trauma have difficulty with emotional regulation. This can result in mood swings, as poor emotional regulation can lead to intense bursts of anger or an extreme emotional reaction to upsetting events. 

Attachment Issues

Adults who have a history of childhood trauma are likely to experience attachment issues. This is because experiences like abuse or neglect can prevent a child from forming healthy attachments with their caretakers. Adults who have attachment problems stemming from childhood trauma have difficulty forming healthy relationships because they carry childhood attachment patterns into adulthood. 

Inability To Cope with Stress

Childhood trauma has been linked to an inability to cope with stress. A brain that is wired for survival after experiencing trauma is especially vulnerable to the effects of stress, as trauma can make seemingly minor issues appear extremely distressing. 

Low Self-Esteem

Research has shown that people with a history of childhood trauma are at risk of low-self esteem. Poor self-esteem may be a result of social anxiety that arises from childhood emotional abuse and neglect. 

Constantly on Edge

Trauma is linked to a state of hypervigilance. This is because when trauma is unhealed, a person feels as if the traumatic event is still occurring. They may feel a need to constantly be on the lookout for signs that some sort of physical danger is present so that they can avoid being re-traumatized. 

Chronic Pain or Illness

Trauma is linked to physical health problems because it causes a chronic elevation in stress hormones, which damages the body. Research has also shown that trauma is linked to somatic symptoms, including pain. 

How To Heal From Childhood Trauma

While trauma can cause deep pain and physical, mental and emotional problems that persist into adulthood, professional interventions can help you to heal. If you are noticing signs of repressed childhood trauma as an adult, these interventions can be helpful. 

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy 

Experts recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy as an effective intervention for treating trauma symptoms. This therapy method helps people to change their thoughts and behaviors surrounding the traumatic experience in order to reduce symptoms. 

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)

EMDR is proposed as a clinical treatment for trauma. This approach requires a person to recall a traumatic event while engaging in some type of bilateral stimulation. Most often, a therapist who practices EMDR will have a person move their eyes from side to side to experience bilateral stimulation. It’s believed that EMDR reduces the intense emotions that a person associates with a traumatic experience. 

Prolonged Exposure Therapy

In prolonged exposure therapy, people slowly begin to think about the memories and events associated with a traumatic experience. A person who participates in this type of therapy gradually processes their trauma. 

Prolonged exposure therapy typically lasts for three months. Over time, people learn that the traumatic event is no longer causing any danger and therefore does not need to be avoided. 

Cognitive Processing Therapy

Several case studies of individuals living with trauma have shown that cognitive processing therapy is beneficial. This type of therapy allows a person to change unhealthy beliefs related to the traumatic experience.

For example, if a person is convinced that the trauma was their fault, a therapist utilizing cognitive processing techniques can help them to challenge this thinking. Seeing the traumatic experience in a new light can help people to overcome some of their repressed emotions. 

Medication

Some people may benefit from taking medications to treat trauma symptoms. SSRI drugs that are used to treat depression are commonly used in the treatment of PTSD symptoms. Further, the antidepressant drugs Zoloft and Paxil are actually FDA-approved for PTSD. 

A review of 51 different studies that evaluated the effects of medication on trauma symptoms found that SSRI drugs were more effective than a placebo, but their effects were relatively small. Some people may benefit from medication more than others. Given that medication has small effects, it may work best when used alongside other interventions, such as talk therapy. 

Want To Learn More? Check Out Our Podcast!

On episode 7 of our podcast, Dear Mind, You Matter, we talked to Amber Anderson about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), how those affect brain development, and the difference one adult can make and the joy of finding Frozen-themed yoga. Listen below!

If you’re seeking support for coping with signs of repressed childhood trauma, the Nobu app is an excellent resource. This app offers several free features, including lessons from mental health experts, a mood tracker and training on mindfulness practices like yoga and deep breathing. For an additional fee, you can schedule sessions with a licensed therapist who will meet with you online. Sign up for Nobu today and download the app, available for free on both Apple and Android devices. 

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Edited by – Jonathan Strum Jonathan Strum graduated from the University of Nebraska Omaha with a Bachelor’s in Communication in 2017 and has been writing professionally ever since. He has written, edited and published content for health care professionals, educators, real estate agents, lawyers and high-level university faculty… Read more.
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Written by – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has seven years of experience working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health… Read more.
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Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.