Understanding How Adverse Childhood Experiences Can Impact You Throughout Life

There is no such thing as a perfect childhood. That said, some children face immense distress and agony during their youth. This trauma can result in devastating consequences in your adult years.

In some cases, adverse childhood experiences can impact your self-esteem, relationships, and overall sense of security in the world. Let’s get into what you need to know.

What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences?

An adverse childhood experience refers to a traumatic event that occurs before someone turns eighteen. These events may include:

  • Instances of physical abuse towards oneself or another loved one.
  • Instances of sexual abuse.
  • Emotional abuse (threats, yelling, ongoing criticism)
  • Experiencing mental illness or addiction in one or more family members.
  • The death of a caretaker or close loved one.
  • Divorce or separation.
  • Poverty or severe financial distress.

It’s not uncommon for people to face multiple adverse childhood experiences. Many children are subjected to complex trauma- it can certainly seem like one bad event happens after another. In these cases, the effects of trauma can compound themselves.

How Does Childhood Trauma Impact Adult Functioning?

It depends. Everyone copes with trauma differently, and there isn’t a “right” method for dealing with the aftermath. Likewise, it’s impossible to know how someone will react to trauma. 

Below are some common issues people face as a result of adverse childhood experiences. Keep in mind that some symptoms emerge immediately, and others may take several years to manifest.  

Low Self-Esteem

Many people with trauma histories struggle to affirm, validate, or love themselves. If you identify with having low self-esteem, you may feel immense guilt or shame over what happened to you. You might even blame yourself.

Consequently, low self-esteem can make it challenging to pursue a meaningful life. You might avoid taking healthy risks for growth because you fear rejection or failure. You may criticize yourself over every mistake. Over time, this pattern often perpetuates ongoing feelings of depression and anxiety. 


PTSD can occur when trauma continues to impact multiple areas of your life for several months or years after the event. PTSD ranges in severity, but some of the more typical symptoms include:

  • Hypervigilance (feeling jumpy or on edge in different situations).
  • Avoiding people, places, or things that remind you of the trauma.
  • Irritability.
  • Flashbacks.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Depression or hopelessness.


Denial is a powerful defense mechanism aimed to maintain self-preservation. This tactic can range from statements like, it wasn’t that bad to flat-out confirming that the trauma never happened in the first place. Denial might also sound like rationalization. For example, you might tell yourself that other people have it worse, so you “shouldn’t” feel upset.  

Denial isn’t the same as repression, which refers to the unconscious “blocking” of certain events. Repression can happen when a young child experiences trauma. They may not have any recollection of what happened until many years later. 


In many cases, trauma directly impacts anxiety. That’s because trauma can fundamentally change the amygdala and hippocampus structures, two brain parts closely associated with fear and emotional processing. Common anxiety symptoms include:

  • Racing thoughts.
  • Excessive worry that’s difficult to stop or control.
  • Sleep problems.
  • Recurrent panic attacks.
  • Health problems related to anxiety (chest pains, stomach issues, nausea).


Like anxiety, depression is a common reaction to adverse childhood experiences. With depression, you may feel deep sadness or a sense of helplessness over what happened to you. You may also feel apathy as if nothing matters or will improve. In more severe cases, this depression may manifest via self-harm or suicidal thoughts. 

Substance Use

Many people who struggle with substance use report a history of trauma. Many people start drinking or using drugs to numb themselves from the pain associated with the adverse events. Over time, you can build a tolerance to these substances, which can lead to an addiction.

Relationship Problems

Adverse childhood experiences might have affected how safe and supported you felt by other people. As an adult, you may struggle to make meaningful relationships. Common difficulties include:

  • Becoming romantically attracted to unavailable partners.
  • Spending time with friends who frequently take advantage of you.
  • Being unfaithful while in committed relationships.
  • Feeling pervasively disconnected and lonely despite having relationships.
  • Struggling with boundaries and people-pleasing tendencies.
  • Feeling overwhelmed, guilty, or detached as a parent.
  • Reengaging in traumatic behavior with partners (i.e., domestic violence).

Learning How To Cope With Childhood Trauma Appropriately 

Adverse childhood experiences can affect your entire well-being. If left untreated, they can cause continuous emotional damage. 

Fortunately, trauma and EMDR therapy can help you recover from this pain. These treatments focus on working through past experiences to feel more empowered about your present and optimistic about the future.

In other words, you can learn how to cope with your past without letting it continuously define or trigger you. If you’re struggling, consider reaching out for support. Contact us today to schedule a free consultation. 

Willow Counseling, PLLC – Nashville, TN

Willow Counseling, PLLC exists to provide quality trauma-informed mental health counseling to the Nashville community, recognizing the interconnectedness of our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. We work together to alleviate symptoms, learn better coping skills, relieve burdens, remove the pain of trauma, and so much more. However, our greatest desire is for you to know what it means to feel purpose and joy again and to recognize the strength and worth you have to offer the world.


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