Childhood stress hard to shake off

I had a terrible childhood with my mother being very cold, emotionally distant, harsh and extremely disciplining. She had to take care of us alone as my father was mostly absent. I did not imagine this would affect me and in most of my adult life I seemed to not have any problems, succeeding in my life and work. But I really seem to struggle with intimate relationships and even with relating to my husband and children today. I also always struggled with my health, getting all kinds of unexplained illnesses from my 30s onward. Has this got to do with my difficult childhood?

Emotional deprivation is the beginning of disease, in body and mind.

Early emotional deprivation and neglect has been well researched and categorised as complex post traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) as opposed to Post Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD), which is incident related.

Although both can be equally devastating, CPTSD seems to have more severe long-term effects on the body and mind, because it starts early in life and is ongoing and seemingly innocuous.

A child who grows up in a very cold, toxic and unloving home environment and experiences emotional deprivation and neglect, can often have severe cognitive, physiological and psychological effects on their development in childhood, which further impacts their life throughout adulthood.

Although a child exposed to emotional stress and trauma still appears to develop normally physically and cognitively and may seem to be coping with their harsh home environments, the effects may go unnoticed, are trivialised or blamed on the child as “attention-seeking”.

However, this coping includes the development of unconscious defence mechanisms, which helps to protect them from the assaultive, emotionally cold, abusive and unsupportive environment.

These coping mechanisms do not go away and continue to protect the person later, when they do not need them anymore.

What develops often is a difficulty in trusting themselves and others, difficulty in relating to others, difficulty in allowing themselves to be vulnerable to others and being continuously attracted to others who are equally emotionally cold, distant and unavailable to them, as their caregivers were.

These are psychological mechanisms that are often unconscious but continue to wreak havoc in the adult person’s life. For an individual who has grown up in an emotionally deprived or abusive home environment, their body’s responses to so-called normal stress are often overreactive, which includes excessive and continuous production of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline.

These hormones are supposed to only be activated when we are in danger to trigger the survival instinct of self-protection, known as the fight/flight/freeze response.

But in people who have had severe emotional deprivation and ongoing stress in their childhood, this protective mechanism is triggered easily and does not switch off quickly, instead it’s as if it becomes frozen in an “on” position.

This engenders significant physiological problems and illnesses sooner or later, including fibromyalgia (severe muscular aches and pains), migraines, auto-immune diseases of all kinds, hypertension, hyper-vigilance, severe anxiety and insomnia.

The best way to deal with your problems is to obtain emotional processing and support from a qualified mental health professional, more specifically one who deals with complex trauma.

Also seek medical help from your GP or a psychiatrist for psychopharmacological support.

You can google therapist- which provides access to various mental health professionals who are trained in dealing with childhood deprivation.

I am struggling to get over my husband who became a drug addict recently. I tried to support him during this time, but it was very difficult because I needed to take care of our children and work a full-time job.

This has put us back as a family as we both had dreams of creating a successful life for us and our children.

Although we have not split up, I find it very hard to trust him and cannot believe that his selfishness has shattered our dreams and our family.

I am sorry to hear that your dreams of a good life have been shattered in this way.

I wonder about what made your husband, who seems to have been on a path of relative success and happiness, turn to recreational drugs at the expense of his family, health and career.

There are various, complex reasons why people use drugs, but often, in my view, one of them is that there may be underlying issues the individual has suppressed or been unaware of.

Drug abuse is often not just about the fun and pleasure it temporarily provides, but also about attempting to find a way to escape from painful suppressed emotions or other life challenges people are wanting to avoid or have become too overwhelmed by.

For you as his wife and partner, knowing this does not change the enormous struggle of how this has impacted on you and your children.

In my view, to start repairing your marriage and family, you will need to sit down together and talk about how his drug addiction has affected you.

I am not sure if you attended family sessions at the rehab centre you mention.

However, in most cases, they only offer a few sessions, so it would be vital to continue family and couple therapy beyond the rehab treatment sessions you may have received.

To heal from the effects of his addiction on your marriage and family will take some time, but it is a positive sign that you have not given up and want to continue having and sharing a life together.

Take this as an experience for both of you which can be used as a way to talk more openly and share more honestly about your inner worlds with each other as well as to help your children talk about their feelings.

This is essential in creating and maintaining healthy relationships.

You can contact FAMSA or other family and couple therapists on

Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist.

Write to her at Send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.