Childhood Emotional Wounds: How They Affect Us As Adults

Emotional wounds from childhood…the vast majority of us have them. In fact, roughly 60 percent of adult Americans report having experienced trauma or difficult relational dynamics as children—and that doesn’t even include those of us who have repressed these experiences.

But what is an emotional wound anyway, and why do they matter now?

An emotional wound is a negative experience, or series of experiences, that causes pain on a deep psychological level. It typically involves someone close to you: a parent, family member, lover, mentor, friend, or other trusted individual. It may be tied to a specific event or pattern of events, to learning a hard truth about life, or to going through a physical limitation or challenge. Most emotional wounds are associated with abuse, abandonment, loss, neglect, mistreatment, and inconsistency in close relationships, but even these terms can be defined differently depending on the person. We are all different in a myriad of ways, from genetic makeup to the circumstances in which we live, so what may have been traumatic for you may not be for someone else. Thus, the most important factor in identifying and understanding emotional wounds is not the world’s perception of what happened, but the individual who has them.
Childhood emotional wounds are particularly devastating because of who we were at the time: children. If adults have trouble processing these occurrences, just imagine the stress and overwhelm felt by a child trying to understand the same. Unlike adults, children are not yet able to analyze circumstances through the lens of education, social norms, and life experiences. All they know is that they are in pain, and without another point of reference, their conclusion is usually that they themselves must be to blame—that something inside them is inherently wrong, bad, or undeserving.
Unfortunately, these deeply rooted hurts and beliefs don’t just disappear with time. Even in cases where the conscious brain cannot recall the experience, the anxiety caused by it continues to be felt by our bodies to some degree. This is why emotional wounds come up later in life, particularly in relationships that mimic the ones in which they were caused (with significant others, family, and close friends): They can only stay hidden for so long. Such long-term, unresolved heartache has both mental and physiological effects. Not only does it chip away at a child’s sense of stability and self, damaging their self-worth and later producing feelings of guilt, shame, lack of belonging, and disconnection from others; emotional wounds can also lead to heightened anxiety, difficulty managing emotions, depression, and anger in adults. It isn’t uncommon for those with a history of trauma or painful relationships to develop struggles with addiction, chronic illnesses (cancer, heart disease, etc.), poor memory, and other mental disorders as well.
These effects ultimately dictate how we view ourselves, the world, and those around us, changing the way we interact with others. Many adults with emotional wounds have trust issues in relationships and develop victimhood thinking. This causes them to cap their own potential, compromising their success in careers, relationships, and other goals and dreams. For example, when self-expression and self-defense felt unsafe in childhood, unhealed wounds often manifest as passivity and subservience in adults. While these characteristics are sometimes viewed as positive, such people-pleasing behavior can have detrimental effects on the trajectory of one’s life as bottling up feelings instead of communicating can lead to resentment, blow-ups, and even depression. Moreover, people-pleasers’ “go-with-the-flow” nature makes them more susceptible to the exploitative intentions of narcissists and other parasitic people. Other adults may yell, lash out, be overly assertive, seek control, and push people away in times of distress. 

In situations where any form of child abuse took place, emotional wounds tend to show up as insecure attachment styles. These include:

  • Fearful-Avoidant Attachment: It is normal for some children exposed to abuse and neglect to fear close relationships. Now, as adults, those with fearful-avoidant attachment are distrustful, have a hard time sharing emotions with their partner and others and often avoid emotional intimacy altogether.

  • Dismissive-Avoidant Attachment: When a parent or caregiver ignores or rejects a child’s needs, this attachment style results. As an adult, individuals with this style turn to ultra-independence to protect themselves from being rejected again.
  • Anxious-Preoccupied Attachment: Adults with this attachment style require repeated validation in relationships and at times, come across as clingy and needy. Due to a childhood in which their parents were not consistent in the emotional security they provided, these individuals never feel secure. Loving the child and then rejecting them over and over again causes the child to constantly question their place and the validity of the love they receive.

Although distinct, each of the responses mentioned above is a coping mechanism, first learned in childhood in order to function under difficult circumstances and now a pattern of behavior in adulthood used to manage fear, uncertainty, rejection, abandonment, and uncomfortable feelings of any kind.
In sum, emotional wounds run deep and have a profound impact on our beliefs and behaviors as adults, specifically on our self-image and relationships. These traumas, whether big or seemingly small, fracture our foundation and can taint our perception of what is normal and true. They are not easily overcome, but the good news is that they can be. If this article resonated with you and you are not currently seeking support from a mental health professional, contact us today. We would love to help you take steps towards healing—because even though these wounds may be part of who you are, their negative effects don’t have to be. 

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Learn about Ruby and her journey towards freedom in her relationships and childhood wounds through SouthEnd Psychiatry.

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New Year: New Anxieties, Old Regrets

It’s a new year—a time to pause, plan, reflect, look forward, and dream before life picks up and the days and weeks start to blur together again. It’s what many would consider the second most wonderful time of the year—a fresh start, a clean slate, a moment of optimism. For others, though, the New Year isn’t so inspiring. It’s a reminder of setbacks and shortcomings, a reason to feel sorrow over decisions and events of years past. And, for at least 20 percent of the US adult population, it’s also a time of heightened anxiety over the months ahead. 

So, what’s the secret to actually enjoying the start of a new year—to fighting the regret and anxiety so many of us are feeling?

Be more positive! And no, we don’t mean “Cheer up, buttercup.” After all, emotions, whether positive or negative, aren’t bad. They’re just human. We mean finding a balance between the two by mitigating the never-ending flow of negativity in our lives in very intentional ways. This, research suggests, makes our minds more resilient, leading to less anxiety, regret, and an improved quality of life overall.

To help you get started, here are a few resolutions you can make to kick off your New Year right:

  1. Trade two for one. It won’t be easy to reverse your negative thought processes, but that old saying, “Slow and steady wins the race,” really does apply here. When you find yourself ruminating on past failures—the school you didn’t go to, divorce you never wanted, 30 pounds you didn’t lose—remind yourself that the past is the past, and you can only work on today to have a better tomorrow. The same goes for negative thoughts about the future: When expecting the worst, speak truths about the situation to yourself, remembering the positive possibilities and the strength you’ve developed from situations in the past.
  2. Aim to replace every negative thought with two positive affirmations, observations, or gratitudes that counter it. By trading two for one, you’ll be teaching your brain to see situations in a better light.
  3. Similarly, practice thankfulness. If you’re tired of focusing on the past or future, redirect your mind to the present by listing the people and things for which you are thankful today. Be thankful for a good night’s sleep, a steady job, a friend who cares about you, your education, yummy lunch, the task you just completed, etc. It doesn’t matter what it is, just give thanks! Keep a list in your notebook or phone, and glance at it throughout the day. You’ll notice a difference in no time.
  4. Want to get out of a mental rut? Prove it in your posture. It’s old news that the body affects the mind and vice versa, but studies have found that it’s not just healthy eating and exercise that make a difference, but the small habits too—like posture. On the days when you’re in a lull and can’t break out, stand up tall, pull your shoulders back, and stretch your arms out wide. This posture will not only get your blood pumping, but it will cause you to produce endorphins, much like exercise, that boost your positivity.
  5. To take this a step further, try power posing! A social psychologist at Harvard University found that there are “high power” and “low power” posture poses that affect our mood. By holding high power poses for about two minutes, we cause hormonal shifts in our bodies to take place, sparking feelings of self-confidence. The next time you need a coffee break, break into a power pose instead (like the Wonder Woman pose!), and feel more positive and empowered instantaneously.
  6. Set firmer boundaries. Distance yourself from negative people, and surround yourself with more positive ones—ones that are on the same journey towards self-improvement as you. We all know that phrase, “You are the sum of the people closest to you.” That’s because it’s true. Being around negative people for an extended period of time can rewire our neuronal connections. When this happens, the networks in our brains begin to respond negatively to situations that we once considered positive. These “re-wirings” can cause long-term depression and anxiety. It can take time, sometimes years, for our brains to learn to think differently again.
So, who uplifts you? Who pushes you towards your goals? Who is kind, patient, and genuinely concerned for your wellbeing? Choose them, and take measures to limit your time with the rest.
 
Last but not least, seek out a licensed counselor or therapist. Nobody should have to face regret and anxiety alone, and it’s important that one of the people standing next to you through these struggles has a deep understanding of their causes and effects. Friends and family are great for advice, consolement, and encouragement, but when it comes to chronic emotional distress, treatment is necessary. A professional will be able to break patterns of negativity on a more individualized basis—that is, according to your unique situation and needs.
So, begin implementing the habits above. If these feelings of regret and anxiety continue, schedule a time to talk to someone who can navigate these new habits with you, and maybe even help you identify more that will make this year worthwhile.
Here’s to a more positive 2022! Happy New Year to you and yours.

The Holidays and Depression: What to Look For and Ways to Cope

You’ve made it through the Thanksgiving meal, and now you’ve got weeks of holiday parties and gatherings ahead. If just the thought of all that fills you with sadness and dread (more than just the introvert kind), you’re not alone. This year, more adults will experience feelings of depression during the holidays than ever before.

The holidays already tend to be a hard time for mental health: the financial stress of gift-giving, the nostalgia of holidays’ past, and the inherent anxiety in getting together with some of the loved ones we prefer to love at a distance. But add loneliness, the loss of a family member, or just the thoughts of what “could be,” and you’ve got Grandma’s recipe for anything but holiday cheer.

And that was all before the pandemic sent depression rates skyrocketing. Since the start of the pandemic, depression among American adults has tripled—and they haven’t dropped. Even with reopenings and the release of the vaccine, rates have only increased, revealing that 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. now suffers from depression.

So, like we said, you’re not alone.

But other than statistics, what else do you need to know, or do, to cope with feelings of depression this season?

Know the Warning Signs.

If you’re reading this post, then you’ve probably already noticed some of the more well-known symptoms of depression in yourself or someone close to you. While sadness and demotivation are at the top of the list, it’s important to know that depression can lead to other, less overt changes, such as unusual sleep patterns, irritability, trouble concentrating, impulsivity, exhaustion, loss of appetite and weight, crying spells, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, mood swings, feelings of overwhelm and anxiety, and so on.

If you notice yourself experiencing some of these symptoms, take action: Call someone you trust, and consider contacting a mental health professional if they persist. If you observe these in a loved one, kindly express your concern, and be willing to listen.

Get plenty of sleep.

A hectic holiday schedule can easily cut into your sleep schedule, but when feeling distressed, sleep is the last thing that should go. Poor sleep makes you more vulnerable to depression, and sleep deprivation worsens symptoms like irritability, crying spells, exhaustion, and poor concentration. In other words, sleep helps to prevent low moods and manage them! To ensure your sleep is a priority, set a bedtime alarm, create a nightly routine, and avoid keeping your phone near you at night.

Drink only in moderation.

As “at ease” as it can make you feel, alcohol is a depressant, meaning it can bring down your mood, exacerbating negative emotions—the opposite of what you want when you’re feeling depressed. So, to keep spirits high, limit the amount of alcohol you drink during the holidays, aiming to consume no more than one or two drinks in a single setting.

Exercise.

A much better alternative to alcohol for managing emotions is exercise. Exercise increases the production of endorphins in your brain, leaving you feeling euphoric, and research shows that incorporating it into your daily routine can prevent and reduce symptoms of depression. While starting a rigorous, time-consuming workout routine right now is probably a no-go, starting your day with a quick walk or a 30-minute workout video is no big thing and really all it takes to keep some of those holiday blues away.

Don’t isolate.

Whether you’re longing for company or want to be alone (or a little bit of both), resist the inclination to isolate. A tendency to hunker down is a huge factor in the development of depression. If you’re alone this season, reach out to a friend for a Zoom call once a week, and let them know you’re down. Get connected in your community: Join a church, volunteer at a soup kitchen, sign up for a group exercise class. And don’t rule out meeting with a therapist. Seek support even when it’s uncomfortable. Negativity only breeds negativity without sources of positivity.

Plan things you can look forward to.

Who says you have to spend the holidays at home? Book a trip, visit a friend across the country, stay with extended family—do something different! Make a schedule of things to do or try, and stick to that schedule even when your enthusiasm dips. Having something to look forward to—like trying that new restaurant!—will motivate you to get up and go and mitigate the hopelessness you feel. Plus, when you’re on the move, your body (and brain) are bound to feel better!

Prioritize your needs.

We often think of the holidays as a time of “have tos,” but the truth is, you’re an adult, and you CAN say no. Don’t want to go to that party with the aunt that always asks why you’re still single? Don’t! This is not to say you should say no to every less-than-pleasant event, but it does mean that you need to consider what is healthiest for you…because nobody else is going to. Assess how you are feeling and what you need throughout the day, and hold yourself accountable to respecting those needs in your decision-making. Remember, just because you’ve always done it, doesn’t mean you should now.

Reconsider your expectations.

Sometimes, the enemy of good is great. Instead of running around in mental circles considering how your holidays don’t look as you had hoped, remind yourself of what is good about your life. Be intentional about staying present with your loved ones in the moment, actively stopping thought processes that lead you to unmet expectations. Don’t like how your days look? Figure out a couple realistic ways to improve them. The key is to realize that an imperfect reality doesn’t make your reality any less meaningful.

We hope that these tools help you and yours have a most joyous, peaceful holiday season! If the holiday blues turn into New Year’s gloom, consider scheduling an appointment with one of our mental health professionals. If at any point your symptoms lead to suicidal thinking, call 911 immediately.