21 Signs Of Repressed Childhood Trauma In Adults & How To Overcome It (2024)

It’s common, as an adult, to have large portions of blocked memories from childhood if you’ve had trauma to live through and never had it treated. It can come up in adulthood in different ways.

Signs Of Repressed Childhood Trauma In Adults
Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

If this is something that could be affecting you, as an adult, keep reading to learn about the signs of repressed childhood trauma and how to overcome it.

Let’s dive in.

1. Missing Time Or Memories

Trauma survivors may not be able to access some memories even over the age of three. It’s common for survivors to have unconsciously blocked out weeks, months, or even years of their childhoods.

This is often from a child ‘dissociating’ from a traumatic experience.

People who dissociate may struggle more than others to remember specific details of a traumatic event. Furthermore, dissociative amnesia is known to affect over half of those who have experienced sexual abuse and incest.

2. Feeling “Flooded” By Memories

Familiar sights, sounds, or scents of a traumatic event can recover repressed memories when a person encounters them.

When this happens, it’s typical for a person to feel ‘flooded’ by the memory and the difficult feelings associated with it.

This can be experienced as:

  • Feelings of ‘reliving’ the traumatic experience
  • High levels of anxiety or panic attacks
  • Strong urge to escape from or avoid the trigger
  • Flashbacks replaying in the mind
  • Strong negative emotions like disgust, anger, shame, or grief

3. False Memories

 False memories are another of the signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults. They’re not stories a person makes up to get attention; rather, they’re things one vividly remembers happening to them, despite them never actually occurring.

Some experts believe false memories are the mind’s way of trying to ‘fill in the gaps’ left by episodes of dissociative amnesia. They can also be the result of hypnosis or other forms of suggestive therapy.

4. Black Or White Thinking ​

Black or white thinking is another byproduct of unresolved childhood trauma. This kind of cognitive distortion reflects the mind’s way of labeling things or people as either good or bad.

Black or white thinking is also a defense mechanism people may use to make quick decisions during times of stress.

This kind of thinking can cause problems like:

  • Extreme mood swings
  • Overreactions
  • Impulsivity
  • Erratic relationships
  • Difficulty emotional regulation

5. Trust Issues

Many of those who have experienced childhood trauma develop trust issues which continually affect their relationships in adulthood.

Those who had adverse childhood experiences like betrayal, abandonment, abuse, or neglect as children commonly expect others to repeat these patterns.

This can negatively influence someone’s closest connections or lead someone to avoid pursuing new relationships or push away loved ones, becoming hyper-independent. 

6. Mental Health Conditions Leading To Physical Illness

These signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults can mean they’re 2-5 times more likely to suffer from a mental illness which can lead to physical health issues.

Effects of childhood trauma can lower a person’s immunity, increasing the risk of infections and illnesses. Additionally, survivors are more susceptible to chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and autoimmune disorders.

7. Substance Abuse And Addictions

Those with repressed memories may rely on unhealthy habits like smoking and substance abuse to avoid thinking about or facing past traumas. Even behavioral addictions to food or sex may be used as a method of coping.

8. Insecure Attachment Style

Many adults with early childhood trauma struggle to form lasting, healthy, and stable relationships. This can be due to insecure attachment styles that form in response to neglectful, abusive, absent, or inconsistent caregivers.

This can manifest as intense fears of abandonment and trust issues. One may also be excessively controlling, exhibit a pattern of shutting down, or push people away. Over time, these behaviors can adversely impact one’s relationships.

9. Damaged Self-Esteem

Many people with repressed childhood trauma blame themselves for what happened to them as children, despite in reality, having no fault.

Self-blame may offer someone the illusion of having control over any future traumatic experiences, it often leads to low self-esteem.

Low self-worth can manifest through:

  • Feelings of shame and inadequacy
  • Excessive need for external validation
  • Poor boundaries or inability to stand up for oneself
  • Making poor decisions or life choices
  • Perfectionism or inability to accept flaws and mistakes
  • Persistent self-criticism or negative self-talk

10. Illusory Self-Esteem

Childhood trauma can also cause the opposite problem: self-overestimation. This manifests as narcissism, psychopathy, and sociopathy.

These can present in several ways, including:

  • Manipulative behavior
  • Chronic lying
  • Inconsistencies
  • Black and white thinking
  • Projection

11. Mood Swings With Toxic Stress

Unresolved trauma can lead to a build-up of toxic stress that continues to impact a person into adulthood.

Many survivors showing signs of repressed childhood experience strong emotions, mood swings, and overwhelming stress. Experts believe this is largely because trauma can rewire the developing brain, affecting regions associated with stress, fear, and emotion regulation. Over time, this can make people more susceptible to fear and other difficult emotions.

12. Unable To Focus

Repressing memories isn’t deliberate, but it does require mental ‘bandwidth’. When someone’s mind is working to repress trauma, one may experience an inability to focus. 

This can lead to being easily distracted, forgetful, and disorganized. While many attribute these symptoms to ADD or ADHD, they can also be linked to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

13. Revictimization

Revictimization is largely unconscious in nature and something that repressed childhood trauma survivors often engage in.

In short, what a person fails to address will often negatively impact their choices in the future and they can repeat acts or behaviors associated with the trauma.

Some ways trauma survivors may revictimize themselves include:

  • Choosing abusive, neglectful, or dysfunctional partners and friends
  • Self-destructive behaviors that keep one from reaching their goals
  • Neglecting physical or emotional needs
  • Unhealthy sexual behaviors that mimic past traumas related to sexual violence
  • Harming or abusing others
  • Allowing others to abuse them

14. Dissociative Episodes

In these episodes, people with repressed childhood trauma may lose touch with themselves or reality and are more likely to occur when feeling overwhelmed, upset, or triggered. Yet, can affect a survivor at any time.

Many who dissociate as adults begin this behavior early on in childhood as a way of coping with situations they couldn’t avoid or escape.

Here are some of the signs of a dissociative episode:

  • Feeling emotionally detached or numb to feelings
  • Having an out-of-body experience (i.e. seeing yourself from above)
  • Losing sense of what’s real
  • Unintentionally blanking or zoning out
  • Being in a dream-like state
  • Trouble remembering actions, people, or places

15. Avoidant Behavior

Signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults are often exhibited by avoidant behaviors like avoiding certain people, places, situations or things that trigger traumatic memories. 

For example, some survivors may refuse to communicate with family members or visit their hometown. They may also avoid discussing certain topics, especially ones related to their childhood.

16. Anxiety

People who have a history of repressed childhood trauma can become hypersensitive to threats within their environments. 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. 

17. Childish Reactions

Childhood trauma interferes with the development of the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in emotional regulation and impulse control.

In individuals showing signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults, 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. 

18. Constantly On Edge

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

19. Extreme Fatigue

Emotional energy can drain you, even if you don’t understand what’s causing it. Some of this has to do with how stress and stress hormones can overload your adrenal system.

If your body is frequently stuck in a state of ‘fight or flight,’ you might feel physically exhausted. A 2009 study in JAMA Psychiatry found that childhood trauma resulted in a 6-fold risk of chronic fatigue syndrome.

This risk increased in subjects who also suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD).

20. Patterns Of Validation

We all want validation for the good work we do. However, people who have suffered from repressed childhood trauma most often experienced emotionally adverse childhood experiences with parents due to which these people normally strive to look for validation.

They also end up in relationships with a partner who exhibits the same behavior which was exhibited by the parents or guardian. This pattern continues with every relationship without the person realizing it.

21. Anger Issues

Anger is a normal emotion which can be released in a healthy manner by taking a walk in nature, talking to a friend etc.

However, if you regularly find yourself getting angry about small things or behaving with rage which starts affecting your interpersonal relationships, it may be one of the signs of repressed childhood trauma in adults. 

What Does Unresolved Childhood Trauma Look Like In Adults?

Adults who have signs of repressed childhood trauma may unconsciously push memories into the subconscious in an effort to be able to continue on in life. However, it rarely ever stays in the subconscious. 

Repressed Childhood Trauma
Photo by Trym Nilsen on Unsplash

When you’re at a point in life that you’re ready to work through the repressed trauma, it will make itself known in the symptoms you show.

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 there’s a link 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 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. 

What Does Childhood Trauma Look Like In Adults?

When childhood trauma is left untreated, it can impact physical, emotional and mental health 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 impact mental health disorders, such as 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 are more likely to experience difficulties functioning in daily life as a result of emotional problems. 

Experienced childhood trauma is linked to difficulty with emotional regulation because it interferes with the developing brain and negatively impacts its ability to cope with stress. 

Childhood abuse can make 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.

The good news is that therapies exist that can help people with repressed childhood memories of childhood trauma overcome these difficulties. 

How Do I Know If I Have An Unhealed Childhood Trauma?

Simply put, trauma is a deeply disturbing or distressing experience. Likewise, there are many circumstances and situations that can be traumatic. It’s important to note, two people could experience the same event, and one may be traumatized while the other is not.

As a result, a trauma experience is very personal and unique; there isn’t an exact way to define the cause. Likewise, there’s no specific way people react to their traumatic experience. 

Examples of different traumatic events or situations include: 

  • Natural disasters
  • Chronic health issues or sudden terminal illness
  • Car accidents
  • Neglect and abuse
  • Divorce
  • Discovering an addiction or infidelity 
  • Losing a loved one
  • Witnessing violence or death

You may have a childhood trauma that you can’t quite identify but feel some heaviness set in when you think of the past. 

Although the experiences with trauma can vary, there are symptoms of trauma you may recognize. 

Symptoms Of Childhood Trauma In Adulthood

A common result of trauma is post-traumatic stress disorder. There are many PTSD symptoms you may experience.

For example: 

  • Unexplainable anger
  • Flashbacks or recurring memories
  • Sleeplessness 
  • Irritability
  • Nightmares or night sweats
  • Anxiety/panic attacks or intense fear
  • A constant state of high-alert, feeling jumpy or in danger

Other symptoms can include:

  • Inability to focus
  • Isolation
  • Withdraw from others or activities you usually enjoy
  • Mood swings

If you recognize your reactions don’t match the situation, you may be living with unresolved trauma.

For example, do you respond with anger but then wonder why you’re so angry? Do you feel like many of your reactions are bigger than you’d like them to be?

Although you may not realize it, you may be subconsciously reacting to memories your body has locked away inside. 

How To Treat Childhood Trauma In Adults

The effects of childhood trauma may seem like they can’t be cured. But with the right approach, you can overcome childhood trauma and learn to cope.

1. Recognize The Trauma

The first step is to come to terms and acknowledge this certain childhood experience as trauma and it’s okay. This will help you give meaning to your current difficulties and make sense of your struggles.

2. Be Patient With Yourself

Self-criticism and guilt can be very common when it comes to adults who have lived through adverse childhood experiences (ACE).

You may ask: Why do I act this way? What’s wrong with me? I could have dealt with this in a better way. These thought patterns can lead to hopelessness and frustration.

The key here is to stop and realize: you were not responsible for what happened. Your childhood trauma left a scar — and you’re doing your best to heal, and like all wounds, it’s important to be patient and loving with yourself. 

3. Reach Out For Help

Give loved ones the chance and rely on them for emotional support and understanding. It’s key to feel heard, understood, and validated.

Especially with childhood trauma, one can often feel alone and isolated. It’s common to think no one will understand or empathize. But in reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. 

It’s also important to seek help from a mental health professional who is trained in repressed memories and trauma treatment. A clinician can help you heal these deep wounds to improve relationships.

They can also help identify unhealthy patterns and coping mechanisms — and improve your mental health fitness.

Complex Childhood Trauma In Adults

The term complex childhood trauma describes both children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature, and the wide-ranging, long-term impact of this exposure at an early age.

These events are severe and pervasive, such as abuse or profound neglect. They usually begin early in life and can disrupt many aspects of the child’s development and the very formation of a self.

Since they often occur in the context of the child’s relationship with a caregiver, they interfere with the child’s ability to form a secure attachment bond. Many aspects of a child’s healthy physical and mental development rely on this primary source of safety and stability. 

Some symptoms of complex childhood trauma are similar to PTSD symptoms and may include these mental health concerns:

  • Feelings of worthlessness, shame and guilt or low self esteem
  • Problems controlling your emotions
  • Finding it hard to feel connected with other people
  • Relationship problems, like having trouble keeping friends and partners

Complex PTSD may be caused by experiencing recurring or long-term child trauma events, for example:

  • Childhood abuse or neglect
  • Domestic violence
  • Sexual abuse
  • Torture, sex trafficking, or slavery
  • War

You may also be more likely to develop complex PTSD if:

  • You experienced trauma at a young age
  • You were harmed by someone close to you who you trusted
  • You were unable to escape the trauma

How To Remember Repressed Childhood Trauma

At the time of a traumatic event, the mind makes many associations with the feelings, sights, sounds, smells, taste and touch connected with the trauma. Later, similar sensations may trigger a memory of the event.

Childhood Trauma
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While some people first remember past repressed traumatic memories during Cognitive Processing Therapy, most people begin having traumatic memories outside therapy.

A variety of experiences can trigger the recall.

  • Reading stories about other people’s trauma
  • Watching TV programs depicting traumatic events similar to the viewer’s past experience
  • Experiencing a disturbing event in the present
  • Or sitting down with family and reminiscing about a terrible shared episode

Repressed Childhood Trauma Test

The brain tends to make traumatic or uncomfortable memories difficult to access in order to protect the individual and to be able to carry on with life.

However, it’s crucial for an individual to learn and heal from repressed memories. If you think you may have some repressed childhood memories, then, take this introspective “Do I Have Repressed Memories Quiz” to know more about it.

Signs Of Childhood Trauma In Adults Quiz

You can measure how deep your trauma is with  the ACE childhood trauma test.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACE test questions for ten types of childhood trauma in a series of 10 questions about various incidents that occur during earlier stages of life.

The first five questions relate to your personal circumstances, which could be verbal, sexual, and physical abuse or different kinds of neglect. The next five questions relate to various difficult conditions within your family. 

According to the test, the more difficult your childhood, the higher you’ll score on the quiz. This, in turn, has implications for experiences well into adulthood. 

It’s important to remember there’s plenty of help for you to move through this difficult time from family, friends, and mental health therapies, like Cognitive Processing Therapy. You’re stronger and more valuable than you know and so you are worthy of compassion and healing.

Let us know how you enjoyed this article. We’d also like to invite you to share this with friends. 

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About The Author

Bijan Kholghi is a certified life coach with the Milton Erickson Institute Heidelberg (Germany). He helps clients and couples reach breakthroughs in their lives by changing subconscious patterns. His solution-oriented approach is based on Systemic- and Hypnotherapy.