The underlying avoidance mechanism related to childhood trauma
One of my clients tends to withdraw socially because he cannot tolerate the emotions triggered by social events without knowing the underlying reasons. He also is addicted to alcohol drinking and tends to use alcohol as a way to escape from his intolerable anxiety due to work stress. In fact, he had an abusive father who frequently scolded and physically punished him over trivial matters in his childhood. Throughout his childhood, he learned to develop a coping mechanism that if he could, he would try his best to run away from his father and any abusive situations. He also learned to run away from any situations that triggered his emotions reminding him of his abusive childhood, such as situations in which he may be negatively evaluated and being criticised. For instance, due to his experience of being bullied by his colleagues, he withdrew from social gatherings organised by his team members as he worried about the possibility of being bullied and the triggering of his traumatic memories.
Some people with childhood trauma may tend to avoid experiencing painful images, thoughts, emotions or sensations related to traumatic memories. There are many different kinds of avoidance behaviours, such as social withdraw in order to stay away from triggers of traumatic memories, and substance abuse or binge eating for escaping of painful emotions. Sometimes, people with childhood trauma may isolate themselves and avoid situations that are actually safe. In their childhood, this avoidance coping strategies may be useful to prevent oneself from being harmed again and again. However, if these people cannot differentiate their past traumatic experience with the non-threatening here-and-now situations, they may miss a lot of positive experience with their friends and loved ones.
For those people with this avoidance tendency, they may try to explore their history and find out if they had experienced any childhood trauma. They may find out that in their childhood, it may not be safe to stay in their home due to the behaviours of their abusive parents. At that period of time, escape from the situation, may be the best options to protect oneself for survival. With this awareness, they can be more compassionate to themselves for their problematic behaviours at present. After this exploration, it is important for these people to realise that they are no longer trapped in the unsafe environment of ones’ childhood. After this realisation, ones can learn strategies to acknowledge that ones are now in a safe situation in the here-and-now.
Some mindfulness practices may help these people to stay in the present moment of the situation and notice it is a safe and positive experience. For instance, if my client with social withdrawal from colleagues tried to go to some social gatherings, he may try to be mindful and observe the facial expression of his colleagues. By doing this, he may notice some visual cues that inform him that his colleagues actually welcome him to join the gathering. He may also observe his breathing in the gathering sometimes to try to stay present to the conversations and looking around to notice the details in the environment to ground himself. By gradually exposing oneself in situations one tends to avoid, one can realise some of the emotional reactions in normal social situations may be triggered by traumatic memories in the past and the present situation is, in fact, a safe one.
The impact of childhood trauma can be longstanding. Many problematic behaviours, such as social withdrawal or addiction, may in fact related to the underlying legacy of childhood trauma. With a deeper understanding, people with childhood trauma can be more compassionate to themselves. With practice, they may be able to gradually reduce those problematic avoidance behaviours.