Evan exploded. His one-year-old son had dropped cereal on the floor for the third time. Usually, Evan has lots of tolerance when his son dropped things, but today he had none. He knew his reaction was over the top for something relatively minor. Later, when he thought about his reaction he realized that this was just one more time in the past month when he seemed to have no patience with his family. In bed, he became irritable when his wife initiated sex. Lately, he actually preferred to not have any sex. He didn’t admit it to his wife, but something about it had become disgusting.

When his wife confronted him about his short fuse and his increasing displeasure with their sexual life, Evan decided to seek therapy with me. To his shock, he began to have memories arise that seemed to point toward childhood sexual abuse. When he let himself feel his rage about the peanut butter, a vivid memory came of a time when his mother forced him to lick peanut butter off her body. Another time, he remembered how he was forced to watch his parents have sex. These memories, which came first as body memories of disgust and fear, helped him to realize what he had consciously forgotten for years. His past history of abuse was seriously affecting his relationships with his family.


Perhaps you have had experiences similar to Evans. Nothing really stands out about your childhood. Life is going along relatively well. And then, out of the blue, something happens that sets you off, brings you to tears or makes you very nervous; you can’t seem to find your way back to your “normal” life. You are left wondering what just hit you. Your family notices how depressed you have become; you no longer have energy to enjoy their company. Or perhaps you start to argue over the smallest things with your partner and talking with your children creates a battleground. Physical Intimacy is impossible. At work you are on-guard around your new supervisor; work that once was enjoyable now makes you continuously anxious. On the other hand, co-workers may shrink away from you because you have a no tolerance for anything less than perfect. Physically, a low-grade pain becomes intense or your sleep worsens and is interrupted with nightmares. In short, daily living becomes a struggle.


What has turned your world upside down could have its roots in childhood abuse. Most likely the current stressor is connected to the past. This thread to the past. could be anything: a new relationship, seeing a certain object, a change in your living or work environment, a health challenge, or even a natural disaster. What makes the thread so potent is that there is enough similarity between what happened around the abuse and the current stressor. The tricky part is that initially you may not recognize the connection or that you are acting out a threat response. Anger, anxiety, depression and compromised health can all be signals that you are overwhelmed and have spun back into the trauma of childhood abuse.


However the current situation is connected to the past, your nervous system is acting as though the threat of the past is happening again. Your rational thinking mind may say this is not true, but your body has a different reaction. It’s as though the snapshot that your nervous system took of everything that happened during the abuse is being flashed continually in front of you making it nearly impossible to see that the current situation is not the real source of threat.


When the body experiences threat several things happen. One is that all the details of the threatening event register in the body. These details may include such information as identifying characteristics of objects used in the abuse, the perpetrator’s tone of voice, words, clothing, the location of the assault and season or day of the year to name a few.

Another common response is forgetfulness about the abuse. At the time of the abuse, you were too young and small to fight or run away. These natural responses to threat were not an option. Instead, to help anesthetize you from the physical and psyche pain, you probably became numb in order to turn off what was happening. By being able to block out what happened, you were able to stay connected enough with caregivers or other important people in your life , however, what happened when you were numb.

Thirdly, you may simply not have the words to say what happened. When a child is terrified the brain produces chemicals that make thinking in language about what happened very difficult. As a child you may not have been able to create words to describe what happened. Instead, you registered the abuse as pictures or via other sensory channels including physical sensation. Years later this may still be the case.

However you responded to threat, it’s important to understand that what you initially label as childhood abuse may not be the case. When we are in a threat response, it’s natural to want to locate the source of threat. If you do this prematurely, you may assign the source of threat to someone wrongly. For example, you may conclude that a certain pain in the body originated in childhood abuse but, in fact, came from a surgical procedure. It’s best to stay open-minded when you follow the threads back into your history and be patient and curious about what your body reveals to you.


Adults who were abused as children can recover from this kind of traumatic event. Let’s look at how this can happen.

The first step is to look at your current behavior and mood as an expression that your nervous system is stuck in a threat response. By starting out with paying attention to how you experience the present situation in your body, the thread to the past often appears. The remainder of the treatment then will focus on relating to the “real” source of danger- the perpetrator(s) of the abuse.

In ideal circumstances, the abused child will have allies to help her or him to move through a natural biological sequence of steps to resolve the trauma. If this does not happen, the energy that rises at each step has the potential of getting stuck in the body. Over time this undischarged energy can get bound in the body as symptoms such as physical pain, nightmares, anxiety and depression.

The natural response to threat, when allowed to complete, avoids trauma. Of course, if you did not have supportive people around you who understood what was happening, it may have been impossible to have a natural response. However, it is important to understand the steps that did not get to happen, in order to fully heal. These are:

Step 1. Stop and startle. This gives your nervous system a chance to register that something potentially dangerous is near.
Step 2. Scan the environment to locate the threat.
Step 3. Evaluate the situation to determine if it is dangerous
Step 4. Fight or flee if the situation is dangerous. Even though you are too small or young to take effective action, your body will still send chemicals coursing through your body in an attempt to protect you. If, however, you perceive the threat as life threatening, you will freeze like a deer caught in the headlights.
Step 5. Release any residual energy then rest. This may happen by crying or shaking followed by deep relaxation. These options may have been not available to you as a child because they brought further assault, and resting was out of the question when the perpetrator acted unpredictably.

As you proceed through each step, you move through time so the snapshot of the abuse no longer runs repeatedly. The threat response to the abuse becomes something in the past.

But Wait…

I’m in a terrible situation at work. How do I know if my reactions are due to work or to childhood abuse?

This is a common concern. This question is best answered by starting out with looking at what is happening right now. Your current situation may be abusive and require that you recognize its impact on you and take action to address the situation. To do this, it can be helpful to view your response to the current stressor in the context of the five biological steps I listed above. If you are able to complete each step and still feel a threatened, then there may be some underlying childhood abuse that is contributing to your reaction. By asking your self, “Does anything about the current situation seem familiar?” you may find the thread back to the original abuse.

I have always thought of myself as no good and worthless. My current life proves it. How do I know if I’m dealing with childhood abuse?

The messages you received as a child can strongly influence how you think of yourself as an adult. While thinking of yourself as “no good” does not necessarily mean you were abused as a child, it is important to explore the messages you took in as a child. Ask yourself if you felt really seen by those close to you.

Many perpetrators do not have the capacity to understand their victim, nor do they care how the victim feels. In fact, they may think that the victim wants or deserves the abuse and treat the victim as though they were invisible. The child ends up thinking that she doesn’t matter. Thinking this way, the child makes choices into adulthood that reflect this self-image.

I’m not sure I want to know if I was abused as a child. Isn’t it better to just not go there?

Intentionally avoiding knowing about childhood abuse can be an effective way to cope. Childhood abuse is often a well-kept secret. To break the taboo about not talking of childhood abuse may put your reputation and personal relationships at risk.

If you think this may happen to you, it ‘s best to begin with finding allies whom you trust will respect and support you regardless of what you discover. In addition, work with a professional who can help guide you at a pace that does not retruamatize you and who can support you as you face all that happened.

More About Treating Evan
In Evan’s case, his mother sexually abused him for many years beginning when he was three. Once Evan and I found the thread back to childhood abuse, we focused on ways to discharge the unexpressed survival energy that he still held in his nervous system.

Some guidelines that I followed in my work with him included:
1. inviting Evan to imagine having just the right kind and number of allies who could stand up to his perpetrator;
2. inviting him to remember a time when he felt safe any time in his life. By having a safe time to recall he could face the frightening times much easier.
3. encouraging him to go into the story, just one step at a time. I also asked him to tell the story in a non-sequential way. This helped him to not be overwhelmed and retraumatized.
4. observing his body movements, coloration and breath closely. I also invited him to comment on his internal experience of body sensations and urges to move. This helped me guide him at a pace that allowed him to complete the necessary biological steps in his own unique way. At one point in a session, his legs began to move spontaneously in a running movement so he could escape an assault. I did not need to tell him how to defend himself; his body knew exactly what to do.

His treatment took a year to complete. During this time we did not have to go into every incident, as there was a positive spill-over affect as he proceeded with therapy. As he felt more confident with the process of attending to body sensations, focusing on small bits of his story and using his imagination to create scenes in his mind where he saw his uncle defending him, Evan’s nervous system more quickly and effectively discharged bound energy. With each success, his “I can” attitude became stronger. At discharge, his sleep had improved; he enjoyed sexual intimacy again and was less easily angered by his son.

· It’s not uncommon that a child forgets the abuse and it may not come into his awareness until, as an adult, something happens that is similar to the abuse.

· When this happens the adult may act as though the childhood threat is happening now.

· It may be difficult to find the words to describe what happened. Noticing body sensations may help reveal what happened.

· Healing from the effects of childhood abuse is possible. The most effective paths include bringing in awareness of the body. Typically, traditional talk therapy alone is not an efficient path to resolving trauma symptoms.

Next Step?

If you suspect or are not sure if your current behavior to a recent stressor is related to childhood abuse, consider talking to friends or family whom you trust will support you regardless of the outcome. If you need additional support sorting out the source of your reactions and resolving trauma symptoms, consider working with a professional who understands the biological response to threat and how to treat you in way that does not overwhelm or retruamatize you.

Author's Bio: 

I bring a total of over 15 years experience to this kind of work. This has included over 10 years of experience with clients with serious dissociative disorders as a result of prolonged childhood traumas.

Drawing upon my training as a licensed massage therapist and as a licensed professional counselor, I am skilled in working in ways that help the client integrate and reverse the psychological, emotional and physical effects of trauma.

Since 2004 in addition to maintaining a private practice, I have worked in the public health sector as an emergency mental health clinician for those in crisis, shock and pain. As a life long learner, I am committed to ongoing professional development. This has included five years postgraduate specialized training in treating trauma.

Holding a Masters of Arts degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy from Naropa University, I am a licensed professional counselor and adjunct faculty member at Naropa University. I am a graduate of the Hakomi Institute and of Peter Levine’s Somatic Experiencing© trauma training and a member of the International
Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation.