Developmental Trauma

As children, we are engaged in the process of trying to understand the world, as well as those around us. Unknown to us, we may have internalized traumatic experiences that now shape who we are and how we cope with stresses that arise in our lives.

“However they coped, children are not wrong to have learned to do what they could.”
― Na’ama Yehuda, Communicating Trauma

What is Trauma?

We understand trauma as the umbrella term used to describe deeply distressing or overwhelming events that have lasting impacts on our nervous system and the way we see the world. Often the primary emotional response is fear: for the life or safety of self or other.

Developmental Trauma describes trauma that has happened in early life or critical developmental periods. Trauma can also be passed down through the generations and cultures and is often referred to as intergenerational trauma. Developmental trauma may be described as intergenerational trauma, inherited trauma, cultural trauma, environmental trauma, and historical trauma. It is also referred to as Complex-PTSD.

Many of our clients experience forms of complex or developmental trauma, which consists of repeated, chronic abuse, neglect, or deeply felt attachment wounds.

What is Developmental Trauma?

As children, our brains are still developing, and trauma becomes part of development shaping our physiology and brain circuitry (neural pathways). This means how we see ourselves, how we experience others, how we understand our emotions, and how we understand the world around us is all affected by Developmental Trauma.

It Begins at Birth

This type of trauma is particularly damaging due to our infantile reliance on others to meet our needs. The rupture of our attachment to our primary caregivers through their neglect can be just as damaging as abuse in these formative years.

Without our ability to advocate for ourselves, to fight or flee, our only adaptation possible is to freeze. We become stuck there, in a preverbal understanding of the world as unsafe, trapped within our unconscious memory and stored in our bodies.

While we may not initially recognize this as trauma, as time goes on, these patterns continue to emerge and telltale signs begin to appear.

Symptoms of Developmental Trauma

Though each individual’s experiences with trauma may differ, there are some common symptoms that arise:


Psychological Symptoms

Physical Symptoms

  • Dissociation, Derealization
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Anger or Irritability
  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Self-Blame
  • Isolation
  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness
  • Despair
  • Feelings of numbness or disconnection
  • Relational problems
  • Negative Core Beliefs
  • Negative sense of self 
  • Negative  sense of others 
  • Lack of Trust
  • Sense of doom
  • Codependency
  • Hypervigilance
  • Nightmares
  • Fatigue
  • Heightened Startle Response
  • Difficulty Concentrating
  • Rapid Heartbeat
  • Edginess
  • Agitation
  • GI problems
  • Hypertension
  • Elevated Blood Pressure
  • Environmental Sensitivities
  • Sleep Issues
  • Chronic Pain
  • Panic Attacks
  • Attention Difficulties
  • Headaches 
  • Addiction 
  • Eating Disorders

Do I Need Treatment for Developmental Trauma?

In an unsafe world, we develop tactics to survive. These strategies, however, may be unhealthy and have many limitations to our ability to live a joyful life, and though we may not initially know where these strategies come from, we know it’s time to do something about it.

  • Do you find yourself avoiding getting too close in relationships, always leaving yourself an “out”, or struggling with commitment?
  • Do you rely on your partner or important others in your life to make decisions or to know how to act?
  • Do you rush into new relationships or friendships, and easily give up on your own interests?
  • Does your drive to succeed cause you to overwork yourself, become a perfectionist, or have trouble adjusting when the plans change?
  • Do you struggle to have intimacy with your partner, sexual or otherwise?
  • Does your desire to avoid the intensity of your emotions look like abusing alcohol or other drugs, gambling, or other concerning behaviors?
  • Do you feel that by restricting your eating, or bingeing and purging you can experience a sense of control over your life?
  • Do you struggle concentrating and find that you rarely finish a project you start?
  • Do you have problems with boundaries or saying no?
  • Do you devalue yourself or have low self esteem?

Through the Trauma-Informed Lens

“The way we define their problems, our diagnosis, will determine how we approach their care. Such patients typically receive five or six different unrelated diagnoses in the course of their psychiatric treatment. If their doctors focus on their mood swings, they will be defined as bipolar and prescribed lithium or valproate. If the professionals are most impressed with their despair, they will be told they are suffering from major depression and given antidepressants. If the doctors focus on their restlessness and lack of attention, they may be categorized as ADHD and treated with Ritalin or other stimulants. And if the clinic staff happens to take a trauma history, and the patient actually volunteers the relevant information, he or she might receive the diagnosis of PTSD. None of the diagnoses will be completely off the mark, and none of them will begin to meaningfully describe who these patients are and what they suffer from.”
― Bessel A. van der Kolk

The foundation of a “trauma-informed” worldview is that almost everyone will experience or witness some type of trauma in their lifetime, whether it is what we call Big T (shock trauma) or little T (developmental trauma).

We also believe that trauma—whether a single-event “shock” or complex trauma rooted in our development—has far-reaching effects, and can be misdiagnosed as anxiety disorders, depression and mood disorders, bipolar or any number of behavioral disorders.

How Therapy Can Help

With trauma-informed treatment, you can overcome the programming of your childhood by learning to rewire your brain and creating a felt sense of safety in your body and mind. At Trauma and Beyond ®, we want to honor your experiences and provide you with personalized, individualized treatment.

Through therapy, you will be able to better understand how trauma has shaped your life and how you can take ownership of your new path. You’ll develop the skills to strengthen your emotional resilience and create new neural pathways to avoid falling back into any maladaptive patterns developed in response to trauma.