Wednesday, 24 October 2012

It's over - Just forget about it and focus on your future...

I have lost count of the number of time I've been given this well-meant advice.

It's over. Just forget about it and focus on your future.

Abuse survivors have been saying for decades that this simply isn't possible. Your past is always with you. There is no getting away from it. When that past contains child abuse, it is even more inescapable.

I could write volumes full of emotional tirades about what daily life feels like for an abuse survivor. I can post neat, bullet lists containing things such as "depression", "anxiety" and "trauma". I will not post yet another list, but if you want to see one, feel free to check the lists from and For a very thorough breakdown of the effects of abuse on future mental and physical health, also check out

The problem with these lists of "symptoms" is that while they define the "it" we should "get over", they don't explain why we can't.

So why can't we?

I believe the answer lies in early childhood development and neurobiology.

The neurobiology explanation

Over the last decade or so, studies have determined that traumatic experiences during childhood actually changes the child's brain. In layman's terms - abuse survivors are brain damaged.

Some of the specific long-term effects of abuse and neglect on the developing brain can include (Teicher, 2000):
  • Diminished growth in the left hemisphere, which may increase the risk for depression
  • Irritability in the limbic system, setting the stage for the emergence of panic disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Smaller growth in the hippocampus and limbic abnormalities, which can increase the risk for dissociative disorders and memory impairments
  • Impairment in the connection between the two brain hemispheres, which has been linked to symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder

The attachment-theory explanation

The theory is that a child needs to develop a close relationship with the primary care giver, in order to develop normally on a social and emotional level. Normally, a baby will attach to his/her mother to fulfil this need. However, this "attachment" doesn't always happen in the same way.

There are 4 common attachment styles

  • Secure
  • Avoidant
  • Ambivalent/Anxious
  • Disorganised

These attachment styles will guide the child's feelings, thoughts and expectations, especially regarding relationship, into adulthood.

So how is this related to the effects of child abuse?

Children who are abused commonly form Disorganised attachments. This happens because the child is attached to, and dependent on a specific person to fulfil his/her physical and psychological needs, but at the same time, this person is also a source of distress. A small child simply cannot cope with this paradox.

A child who forms a disorganised attachment to a care giver, that child will most likely grow up to be an adult who is

  • Incapable of intimacy in relationship, always staying emotionally distant.
  • Perpetually anxious and fearful
  • Aggressive and angry
  • Insensitive to the needs of a partner
  • Socially inept and emotionally immature

As a survivor of child abuse, I find myself nodding as I type these five points. They describe me to a tee.

So, considering these two explanations, is there hope?

Yes, there is hope.

Studies have shown that with enough therapy, the brain can "catch up", and resemble the brain of a normal, healthy person who had a happy, stable childhood more closely. Attachment styles can also change later in life, if the person is able to form a secure attachment with another person.

So once again, we come back to the same basic point - intensive psycho-therapy is absolutely imperative for anyone who has suffered child abuse and wishes to have a normal, happy life in adulthood. We simply cannot just "get over" the damage that was done by ourselves.

Time will not heal these wounds. You need professional help. 

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