Reneau Peurifoy
From Overcoming Anxiety: From Short-Term Fixes to Long-Term Recovery

There are four common traits found in adults who have been abused as children. A person who has experienced severe sexual, physical, or emotional abuse will usually have all four. A person who experienced limited abuse will probably have only some of the traits, and those that are present will interfere with this person’s life in only a limited number of situations.

The first trait is the tendency to be triggered by specific events, which has been called time tunneling in this chapter. Mary, Robert, and Kimberly each experienced anxiety that was triggered by situations and events that resembled childhood experiences. Because Kimberly’s background was much less severe than Mary’s or Robert’s, she had the least amount of difficulty in this area.

The second trait is difficulty modulating emotions. This means that it is easy for a person to become anxious or angry, and, once angered or frightened, it is difficult for this person to calm down. This is especially true when events trigger time tunneling where the exaggerated danger and helplessness a person experienced as a child has been transposed into their present situation. In addition, time tunneling tends to trigger some age regression, which reduces a person’s ability to reason and manage emotions.

An adult who had to suppress many emotions as a child may also find it difficult to feel emotions at a low level because the tendency to suppress emotions has become automatic. In this person, emotions are only felt when they are very strong. Thus, this person either experiences too much of an emotion or nothing at all. Robert, for example, might feel intense hatred toward a stranger, but at the same time, might discuss a very intense issue with his wife in a flat and emotionless manner.

The third trait is a tendency to view oneself and the world negatively. The three key areas affected are the ability to trust, feel safe, and believe that it is possible to bring about desired outcomes. Two key areas in terms of one’s self image are whether or not one is normal and whether or not one is lovable. This is discussed in detail in the next chapter.

The nature of the abuse can greatly affect the form of these negative views. For instance, if a person was abused by a stranger, he or she may feel a sense of safety when close loved ones, and a sense of danger when far away from them. However, if a person was abused by someone who was supposed to protect and give love, the identification of what and who are “safe” becomes confused.

The fourth trait is a reduced ability to understand events. People with this tendency find that they often go into a daze or become confused, especially when they are stressed, dealing with conflict, or emotionally upset. When a child is being abused and cannot escape physically, the child often takes the only other form of escape possible: dissociation. Dissociation is the ability to remove oneself mentally from a situation. The more frequent and severe the abuse, the greater the tendency to remove oneself mentally from the painful experience. Unfortunately, this automatic habit pattern often continues into adulthood. This causes the person to dissociate whenever a current event feels like pain from the past.

These tendencies can create many different types of problems. For example, people with abusive childhoods often find it difficult to distinguish unhealthy individuals from healthy ones. Their childhood experiences taught them to ignore the important indicators that to those raised in healthy families became danger signals. Instead, they “numb out” or use an old response pattern that causes them to walk into harm’s way without even knowing it.

These tendencies can also greatly affect a person’s spiritual side. It is difficult to find satisfying answers to questions such as “Is there a God?” “Does God really love me?” “Is there a larger meaning to life?” and “Is it worth giving a part of myself to others?” In addition, an abused child often develops a self-concept that contains beliefs about being dirty, inadequate, guilty, or responsible for what happened. As a result, a person like this often makes up a “cover story” and tries to hide who he or she really is. All of this makes it difficult for him or her to develop healthy relationships and function effectively.

Four Common Traits in Adults with Abusive Childhoods