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Published May 19, 2014, 12:34 PM

Sticking point: Unprocessed childhood trauma can lead to adult mental health issues, counselors say

FARGO – Trauma, specifically childhood trauma, underlies many adult mental health issues, according to counselors at The Village Family Service Center in Fargo and Moorhead.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

FARGO – Trauma, specifically childhood trauma, underlies many adult mental health issues, according to counselors at The Village Family Service Center in Fargo and Moorhead.

Nadine Hillesheim, an in-office counselor with The Village, said she recently noticed that in an entire week, every person she counseled had experienced trauma in the past.

Trauma can be anything from car accidents, fires and tornadoes, to getting bullied, assault, neglect, or growing up in an abusive home, counselors said.

“When you come into therapy, you’re usually kind of stuck,” Hillesheim said. “People get stuck around, maybe not the trauma itself, but the ideas and beliefs that got put into place as part of the trauma.”

And people don’t always realize where those ideas and beliefs came from, she said.

“It’s just become the fabric of how they think,” she said. “They don’t necessarily associate it with their childhood experiences.”

Everything we go through, Hillesheim said, affects how we think about other people, the world, and ourselves. And some of those beliefs, she said, can get in people’s way of living their lives.

Chuck Summers, clinical manager for Fargo Counseling Services, said exposure to traumatic events as a child or adult can activate the fight or flight reflex in our nervous system.

The result, he said, can be heightened reactivity to stressors or avoidance of stressors altogether.

“A truly traumatic incident or event can temporarily overwhelm our ability to make sense of it or to integrate it into the experience of our own life,” he said.

Though he cautions what may be traumatic for one person, may not be for someone else.

“We’re all living in our own constructed universe,” he said.

While we usually resolve trauma naturally, Summers said if it’s not resolved, we can become stuck in that fight or flight mode.

“Extended activation of that part of our nervous system can burn us out,” he said. “It can negatively influence our ability to perceive events in the here and now.”

People may not always recognize when they’re stuck, but he said a good indicator is when someone is in a constant state of body tension.

“We know that when people are in relaxed bodies, they’re not experiencing tension or trauma at that point,” he said.

When people are living in tense, anxious bodies, Summers said that impacts their ability to make good decisions.

With hard work and repeated practice, Hillesheim said people can change their beliefs.

“It’s not a life sentence,” she said. “Whatever got put into our brains can be modified.”

Research has shown that brains cells change by experiences, Hillesheim said.

“Either we’re practicing not getting better or we’re practicing getting a little better,” she said. “Either way, we’re practicing. It does take patience and people have to understand that.”

Mindfulness and calming the system are therapies being used more with trauma now than they used to be, Hillesheim said. When we experience something overwhelming, she said both the mind and body are affected, so finding ways to calm the body can help people better cope with the trauma.

An example of how this might work, Hillesheim said, is to take a deep breath the minute you catch yourself breathing shallowly or experiencing worrisome thoughts. It sounds simple, she said, but it calms the body so you can see better options.

“The breath doesn’t fix the situation but it allows us to remember this is something that happened in the past, I’m not going through it now,” she said.

Another therapy, called eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, involves various procedures, including bilateral eye movements, tones or taps.

People going through the therapy will think about past memories, present triggers, or anticipated future experiences while simultaneously focusing on a set of external stimulus to help create insight, changes in memories or new associations, according to emdr.com.

“It’s an interesting trauma therapy that’s had some really good success,” Hillesheim said. “The idea is that trauma gets stored and locked up in our head like a log jam when we’re trying to process something that’s overwhelming.”

The therapy, she said, helps the brain processing get moving again.

“I’ve had some phenomenal experiences with that,” she said. “It has really worked well especially with current traumas like car accidents.”

It’s not a magic cure for everything, she cautioned, but it can help in some instances.

Stress management and relaxation, Summers said, are hugely important when dealing with stress or trauma.

“As human beings we intellectualize things,” he said. “We think that once we figure it out in our head, the problem will be resolved, but sometimes it may be better to relax our body and relax our body enough so that our head can start to work effectively again.”

Sometimes people need to process and understand earlier experiences in order to move past them, Summers said.

“People often normalize their experiences so that they may be unaware of the very real impacts that exposure to trauma is having on their lives,” he said.

Just as adults process traumas differently, what one child might process easily, may be difficult for another.

Major or prolonged changes in a child’s play, temperament, or sleep, could indicate they are having trouble processing a traumatic event, said Kelly Olson, division director of The Village’s Moorhead, Alexandria, and St. Cloud offices and Joni Medenwald, clinical supervisor in The Village’s Moorhead office.

Play therapy is an important part of helping young children deal with traumatic events, the women said.

Young children express their feelings through play, Olson said.

“Sometimes we learn about their perception over the event or trauma through their play,” Medenwald said. “Through the way they’re playing with the toy and what they’re acting out, we develop a better understanding of how they experienced that situation.”

With older kids, therapists might use more discussion and communication with relaxation techniques and coping strategies, Medenwald said.

“Talking about it can raise distress so we need to teach them strategies to reduce the stress when thinking about or talking about that kind of thing,” she said.

Kids might also reprocess trauma at different developmental milestones, Olson said.

If someone is sexually assaulted at age 8, for example, she might reprocess it when she starts menstruating, when she gets married, and when she has a baby because the trauma means something different at each of those times.

If someone doesn’t process or address a trauma, Medenwald said therapists will sometimes see symptoms of that in adults.

“We’ll talk about depression or anxiety or whatever it is and oftentimes you can tie it back to a trauma in earlier years,” she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526