How Memories of Childhood Trauma Affect Us Today

CPTSD Foundation
6 min readJan 30, 2024

Childhood trauma impacts every aspect of our lives. The things done in childhood reflect deeply on how we form and maintain relationships today. Childhood trauma is also a leading cause of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

This article will explore the different ways that memories of childhood trauma affect our lives.

It would be advantageous to begin the discussion about how trauma affects our lives by first talking about childhood trauma.

Childhood trauma consists of any experiences or witnessing threatening or dangerous situations. These things that happen to children are often known as adverse childhood experiences.

Examples of childhood trauma may include:

  • Neglect
  • Physical abuse
  • Psychological abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Terrorism
  • Natural disasters
  • Community and school violence
  • The sudden loss of a loved one
  • Living in a war zone

The list above is not all-inclusive, as there are many ways to harm a child.

The age of the child and the type of trauma they face shape the memories they will carry into adulthood. Some people remember what happened to them in childhood and do not repress their memories. However, for those who do not immediately remember what happened to them, memories may surface suddenly, causing chaos and depression in adulthood.

Resurfacing Memories of Childhood Trauma

Memories of childhood trauma resurface in a variety of ways, including during therapy, having a new life experience such as getting married or experiencing triggers that force the memories to the surface.

There are a variety of signs that you may have repressed memories, including:

  • Feeling frustrated
  • Feeling insecure
  • Missing a sense of self
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Experiencing social anxiety

Once these memories of abuse come into consciousness, the person may not believe themselves and even question their sanity. Perhaps they knew that some things had happened but are now suddenly faced with more than they can handle.

How Traumatic Memories of the Past Affect Us Today

We are all a combination of our memories. If those memories are reasonable, we tend to remember them better. However, if those memories are traumatic, they may remain hidden for years until brought forcefully to the surface.

Many people experience traumatic childhood memories in flashbacks and how they respond to today’s stress. For example, a child is traumatized by a trusted adult and quickly pushes that memory out of their consciousness. Years later, that memory is triggered to life, and they experience a flashback. The survivor may then have their reactions to stressful situations colored after remembering the event, causing them to respond in what appears to be an irrational reaction.

Memories of trauma aren’t only held in your mind. Body memories are a real problem as your body relives the pain or even the pleasure of the traumatic event. (Our bodies may have responded in a pleasurable way to the trauma. That is normal.) Keep in mind that your body has been violated by adults when you were a child and that you are not responsible for how it responded.

We may also be affected by traumatic memories today in the way we respond to other people. This fact is especially true with intimate partners. We may not want intimacy because we remember, in the back of our minds, how much such behavior hurt us as children. Please do not beat yourself up if you have this reaction. You are human, and I’ll repeat it: your body was violated.

Handling Traumatic Memories and Putting Them to Rest

Traumatic memories are anywhere from slightly pesky to devastating. Most of what we must remember is ugly, and we may want to avoid these memories at all costs.

However, this type of memory will not simply disappear; it takes time and professional help to work through traumatic memories. How much time? As my therapist once told me, “It will take longer than what you’d like, but not as long as you fear.”

A trained trauma-informed mental health professional will sit with you and help to ground you when a traumatic memory surfaces. They may ask you to project the memory onto a wall and tell them what you see, thus moving the memory from being trapped in your mind and into the open, where you and your therapist can see and work on it.

There are many other ways to handle traumatic memories, as indicated in the list below.

Stop ruminating. Don’t relive on purpose the memories that cause you to feel violated and overwhelmed. If possible, save that memory until you are in the presence of your therapist so that you don’t work through it alone.

Practice mindfulness. With mindfulness, you will anchor yourself firmly in the present so that when flashbacks or memories emerge, you feel connected to the present.

Practice self-compassion. Remember that you are a survivor and need and deserve to be good to yourself. Make sure you eat right, get plenty of sleep, and offer yourself positive feedback instead of dwelling on the memory.

Acknowledge your emotions. Emotions are neither good nor bad. They just are. I’m sure you’ve heard that saying, but it is accurate. Don’t push away your feelings. Instead, acknowledge that they are there, and they are yours.

Learn from the experience. Even traumatic memories can teach you how resilient and brave you are. Don’t sell yourself short by thinking you could have somehow prevented what happened. Prevention was absolutely not possible because you were a child.

Ending Our Time Together

Traumatic memories of past abuses don’t need to rule your life today. However, you can’t rise above, go around, or under traumatic memories in an attempt to avoid or ignore them. These memories get laid to rest only by working through them.

The reason I sought out a therapist was because I suddenly had memories of horrific childhood abuse resurface. I thought for sure I had gone crazy because, before that day, I hadn’t remembered all that happened. I had vague memories that something had happened but was unaware of the depth and breadth of what occurred to me when I was a child.

I sought out the help of a good therapist and was very fortunate to find one on my first try. From the day I entered her office for the first time, healing began.

I had horrific memories spontaneously surface that caused me to feel chaotic and out of control. I would sob and shake while relating to my therapist what I knew had happened in the past, and she would weep with me.

My therapist used a variety of techniques to help me, especially the projecting technique. The memories would resurface one by one, and we would work through the emotions that accompanied them together. One day, I realized I had remembered all I needed to and that I was living a life free of horrific flashbacks.

It took me years to work through my stuff, so don’t be harsh with yourself if your healing is taking time. Never ever give up.

“Life can be so unpredictable; always remember that! The rain can pour down, and the winds can blow hard, sweeping away those peaceful moments you had. It’s never the end of the world when things go wrong. Just keep faith in yourself, keep going, and stay strong. Never give up on your dreams, and never give up hope.” — Mouloud Benzadi

“A star is a rock that never gave up on its dream to rise.” — Matshona Dhiwayo.

Originally published at https://cptsdfoundation.org.

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CPTSD Foundation

Successfully equipping complex trauma survivors and practitioners with compassionate support, skills, and trauma-informed education since 2014.