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Childhood Trauma and Trauma Symptom Expression as an Adult

Early childhood trauma can impact life as an adult.

Key points

  • Childhood trauma impacts behavior and emotional expression.
  • Early life trauma can impair prefrontal cortex development, affecting executive functioning.
  • Traumatized individuals often feel helpless and catastrophize regular life situations.

When a child experiences early life trauma, it impacts emotional and behavioral reactions in successive environmental situations that are either stressful or relatively nonthreatening; trauma symptom expression ranges between reactions of hyperarousal and disassociation (Perry, 2009; Perry et al., 1995). Trauma during critical developmental stages can influence trauma symptom expression resulting in severe presentations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, depression, and anxiety (Suliman et al., 2009). Furthermore, more trauma leads to the expression of more trauma symptoms (Turner et al., 2010).

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Trauma and Executive Functioning

There is strong evidence indicating that early-life trauma contributes to deficits in neurological processes responsible for executive functioning. This can manifest as difficulty in planning, organization, and emotional regulation. Traumatic events, particularly those that repetitively occur, activate a child’s stress response system. (See this article for a brief summary of the relationship between abuse in childhood and emotional health in adolescence, including references.)

In turn, this generates and reinforces neurological pathways in the limbic system (Miyake & Friedman, 2012). Recurring trauma inhibits normative neurological development in the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions (Kerig et al., 2010). Using prospective data analyses, researchers suspect that early childhood maltreatment might have the most significant impact on executive functioning during adolescence (Nikulina & Widom, 2013).

Moreover, there is a great deal of evidence suggesting that the sequela of early childhood adversity can meaningfully impair prefrontal cortex development (De Bellis, 2001; Rutter & O’Connor, 2004). Brain imaging scans in children exhibiting symptoms of PTSD show low concentrations of prefrontal cortex gray matter (Richert et al., 2006), which is tied to executive functioning processes such as decision-making, emotional regulation, interpersonal communication, and moral reasoning (Schore, 2003).

Why Trauma Can Lead to Helplessness

A common definition for helplessness includes language that “represents a lack of control” (Gelbrich, 2010, p. 569) and, as an emotion, occurs when people perceive that they will be unable to cope with a current or future situation (Gelbrich, 2010; Lazarus, 1991).

Many authors distinguish it both from learned helplessness and powerlessness. Learned helplessness is a psychological pattern that represents a perception of being unable to control anything across time and place that can lead to depression (Gelbrich, 2010). In contrast, helplessness is “a state triggered by a single, negative event” (Gelbrich, 2010, p. 569). Powerlessness is when someone feels that others are controlling them; in contrast, helplessness is not bound by the presence of people, but rather by situations (Gelbrich, 2010).

Therefore, for traumatized individuals with an impairment in executive functioning, it makes sense why they might feel overwhelmed in situations where non-traumatized cope easily.

Did your boss say something critical about your work? Most folks might feel frustrated for a few minutes and move on. But the traumatized person is more likely to feel the criticism personally and struggle to concentrate for the rest of the day.

Did your partner forget to say goodbye before leaving for work? Most folks might forget this well before lunch. The traumatized person, by contrast, might start imagining that she’s done something horrible to upset her partner and fear that a break-up is imminent. Or take her partner’s forgetfulness as a sign that he or she is having an affair. Catastrophizing is common among traumatized individuals.

Acting impulsively is a common coping mechanism—unplanned shopping sprees, alcohol and drug use, high-risk sex, travel—anything to help distract from the discomfort of feeling helpless. If this describes you, it is not your fault, and it is not a character flaw; it might be the natural consequence of a brain injured by emotional trauma.

Therapy Helps

Feelings of guilt and shame that result from traumatic events can cause feelings of pain and impairment that last throughout life. Addressing these feelings in therapy can help improve functioning in personal and work relationships. Early traumatic experiences negatively affect the development of the neural circuitry necessary for self-regulation.

If you experienced abuse as a child, you are not at fault. Therapy can be a lifesaving tool to help rework the circuitry of your brain by gently addressing unresolved trauma in ways that support healing and enable improvements in your life. To find help near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

© 2023 Dr. Adam Brown. All rights reserved.


De Bellis, M. D. (2001). Developmental traumatology: The psychobiological development of maltreated children and its implications for research, treatment, and policy. Development and Psychopathology, 13, 539–564.

Gelbrich, K. (2010). Anger, frustration, and helplessness after service failure: Coping strategies and effective informational support. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 38(5), 567–585. doi:10.1007/s11747-009-0169-6

Kerig, P. K., & Becker, S. P. (2010). From internalizing to externalizing: Theoretical models of the processes linking PTSD to juvenile delinquency. In S. J. Egan (Ed.), Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Causes, symptoms and treatment (pp. 33–78). Nova Science Publishers.

Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Miyake, A., & Friedman, N. P. (2012). The nature and organization of individual differences in executive functions: Four general conclusions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(1), 8-14.

Nikulina, V., & Widom, C. S. (2013). Child maltreatment and executive functioning in middle adulthood: A prospective examination. Neuropsychology, 27(4), 417–427. https://doi. org/10.1037/a0032811

Perry, B. D. (2009). Examining child maltreatment through a neurodevelopmental lens: Clinical applications of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14(4), 240–255.

Perry, B. D., Pollard, R. A., Blakley, T. L., Baker, W. L., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood trauma, the neurobiology of adaptation, and “use-dependent” development of the brain: How “states” become “traits.” Infant Mental Health Journal, 16(4), 271–291.

Richert, K. A., Carrion, V. G., Karchemskiy, A., & Reiss, A. L. (2006). Regional differences of the prefrontal cortex in pediatric PTSD: An MRI study. Depression and Anxiety, 23(1), 17-25.

Rutter, M., & O’Connor, T. G. (2004). Are there biological programming effects for psychological development? Findings from a study of Romanian adoptees. Developmental Psychology, 40(1), 81-94.

Schore, A. N. (2003) Healing trauma: attachment, mind, Body and brain. Canadian Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Review, 14(4), 120-121.

Suliman, S., Mkabile, S. G., Fincham, D. S., Ahmed, R., Stein, D. J., & Seedat, S. (2009). Cumulative effect of multiple trauma on symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression in adolescents. Comprehensive Psychiatry, 50(2), 121-127.

Turner, H. A., Finkelhor, D., & Ormrod, R. (2010). Poly-victimization in a national sample of children and youth. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 38(3), 323–330.

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