Long-Buried Childhood Trauma and Stress. Surprising Stories of Discovery, Healing, and Redemption

Many of us come from dysfunctional homes. Our memories of those difficulties may have faded, but their lingering influence can remain for a lifetime.

I will share a powerful remedy for dealing with stress, one that I’ve used myself with great success. 


Many years ago, I attended a weekend seminar in LA and met Dr. David Clarke. He had written a book titled They Can’t Find Anything Wrong!


That meeting and his book had a profound impact on my life. Perhaps what I learned will have a meaningful effect on your life.


Many of us have come from dysfunctional homes and suffered childhood trauma from living in a caustic environment. Although the memories may have faded from our conscious awareness, the psychological scars can remain …  so can the clues. Finding them can change everything.


Playing Hide and Seek with Stress


Dr. Clarke is a physician who usually sees patients only after other physicians throw up their hands in exasperation because they can’t find anything wrong. The last implication—if not the actual last words a patient hears—is that it’s all in the patient’s head.


What Kind of Conclusion is That? As if Psychosomatic Illness is Irrelevant!


The truth is, illness, chronic stress and its myriad symptoms are often “caused” by what’s in our heads, which in no way makes the symptoms any less real! 


Dr. Clarke begins his book with a story that shines a light into the darkest corners of our minds. A place where long-buried memories and powerful forces can create unimagined mental and physical havoc, often without our slightest conscious awareness.


Ellen’s Story 


When Dr. Clarke first met Ellen, she was in a hospital, recovering from yet another bout of an undiagnosed attack, which consisted of abdominal pain, dizziness, and vomiting that sometimes lasted for several days.


For more than fifteen years, she had visited dozens of specialists; she endured countless examinations, diagnostic tests, and even a psychiatric evaluation, but no cause could be found. Each attack would end as suddenly as it had begun. Between episodes, Ellen felt completely well.  


Despite her protestations that Dr. Clarke was wasting his time, he pressed her to share her story. With her husband by her bedside, Ellen described the general pattern.  


Every few months for the past fifteen years, she suffered these mysterious attacks that seemed to have no traceable cause. They were as unpredictable as they were severe. They could happen at work when she was relaxing at home or watching her daughters play soccer. 


Sensing that the underlying cause was further back in time and much deeper than Ellen might realize, Dr. Clarke urged her to recall when the symptoms first began.


The Symptoms Began When She was Most Happy!


Ellen explained that the symptoms began in her early 30s. Up to that point, it was the happiest time of her life. She was married, had a library science degree, and was enjoying regular promotions at work. Then, for no apparent reason, these sporadic bouts of illness began.


As Dr. Clarke quizzed her about the duration and frequency of her attacks, Ellen mentioned that although most of the attacks occurred where she lived and worked, she and her husband noticed a striking oddity: She would get an attack whenever she was near a little town called Mapleton, a quiet suburb about forty-five minutes from her home. What made it even stranger was that Ellen didn’t know anyone who lived there. 


Sensing there was more to this geographic location than Ellen perceived, Dr. Clarke asked about her childhood. 


Ellen’s parents had a bitter divorce when she was four years old. Her mother’s animosity toward her ex-husband never relented, and Ellen rarely saw her father again. To make matters worse, Ellen resembled her father physically (father and daughter were both blonde, while her mother was dark-haired), and because of this, her mother often displaced some of her anger onto Ellen. 


Things worsened when her mother remarried and had children with Ellen’s stepfather. The young siblings could do no wrong, and Ellen could do no right. Her self-esteem crumbled.


Ellen repressed her feelings despite her disappointment and resentment at the lack of childhood love and affection. She did everything she could to win her mother’s approval. 


As an adult, she had tried to let the past go to improve her relationship with her mother and stepfather, but even as a highly successful woman, that part of her life wasn’t evolving as she had so desperately hoped.


Certain that Mapleton had a role to play, Dr. Clarke asked an obvious question: Why did she go there if she didn’t know anyone? 


“Well, it’s on the way here,” she explained. “We come to southern Washington about once a year, and Mapleton’s on the way. We pass through it on our way to visit my mother and stepfather.”


To Dr. Clarke, It Became Suddenly Apparent. 


Ellen would be driving to visit her family, and churning inside her, below her conscious awareness, was the prospect of enduring the same old put-downs and distress she had suffered throughout her life. By the time she had travelled the forty-five minutes from her home to Mapleton, the tension and stress were enough to make her physically ill.  


When Dr. Clarke urged Ellen to focus on the events surrounding Mapleton, it began to occur to her that she had never once got sick when passing through Mapleton on the trip home, but­ only on the way there. 


With a great “Aha!” moment, Ellen suddenly recognized the cause of her illness. Then, her husband recalled that many of Ellen’s attacks began just after she had spoken to her mother on the phone. Neither of them had recognized the significance of this coincidence.


From that moment, Ellen’s illness was over. With this new awareness, Ellen could verbally express her feelings and give them an outlet other than through her body. With this new understanding, her “mysterious” attacks never returned. 


The Story of Catherine’s Repressed Childhood Emotions 


When Dr. Clarke met Catherine, she was a slender, forty-two-year-old mother of several children and happily married. She enjoyed her work as a part-time assistant at a law firm.


Catherine had been in good health until two years earlier when she suddenly developed severe abdominal pain and diarrhea alternating with constipation.


Eight Doctors Later and Endless Tests Failed to Provide Any Answers. 


Her ninth doctor, Dr. Clarke, began by asking if she’d been under much stress lately. Her response was, “Just the stress from being sick.”


His next question was, “Have you been under any stress earlier?”… implying two years earlier when her illness had suddenly begun.


Catherine interpreted the question to mean much earlier! “Yes,” she replied, “My father molested me.” 


Dr. Clarke admitted he didn’t know how to respond. Would it be better to ignore her statement? Would exploring it only add to her emotional trauma? Why had she decided to reveal such a personal issue?


As he admitted, we were at the end of our diagnostic tests, so what was there to lose? 


The Volcanic Eruption of Long-buried Trauma 


Catherine told Dr. Clarke that her earliest memory of her father molesting her was at the age of four. The molestation continued regularly for the next eight years. When she began menstruating, he stopped. There were no other incidents of abuse or personal trauma in her life.


Dr. Clarke Wondered if Sexual Abuse Could Cause Illness in a Healthy Person Thirty Years Later. 


As it turns out, the answer is “yes!”


When Dr. Clarke circled back to two years earlier, probing for a more recent event occurring just before her symptoms began, Catherine shook her head and said, “On the contrary, the only thing I remember is that I quit working for this total jerk and got a new job where everyone is great.” She had been with a difficult supervisor for ten years and felt liberated when she left.


Dr. Clarke admitted that, at this point, he was baffled. Could changing to a better job trigger a severe illness? 


Surprisingly yes!


Catherine had received counselling about the sexual abuse long ago. She had had no symptoms of depression or other mental illness. Dr. Clarke admitted he could do nothing but refer her to Dr. Kaplan, a member of their psychiatry department.


Four months later, while sharing an elevator with Dr. Kaplan, he asked how Catharine was doing. “Well, Dave, I haven’t seen her in over a month, but her bowels are working just fine now. In fact, she stopped taking all medicines I prescribed.”


The Discovery: “I Deserve Better!”


Catherine’s illness began when she reached the stage of “I Deserve Better.” Her childhood abuse had left her with poor self-esteem, so even as an adult, she put up with a verbally abusive supervisor for years. However, with the support of a loving husband, her personal growth led her to realize there was no reason to tolerate her toxic boss. She decided she deserved better and had no difficulty finding a pleasant place to work.


With her new job, Catherine suddenly found herself appreciated at work and at home. Her family, friends, and co-workers were unanimous in their affection for her. She began to see that her feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy were unjustified. From that realization, her emotions travelled to her bowels and caused them to spasm uncontrollably. 


When she began working with Dr. Kaplan, she was able to find her emotions and put them into words. They opened the box of pent-up rage and released the contents for feeling, thinking, writing, and speaking. 


In just a few months, Catherine’s stress illness symptoms had disappeared.


Healing Requires More Than Lifestyle Changes.


As Dr. Clarke concluded, contrary to some popular self-help approaches, healing cannot be achieved simply by making lifestyle changes without understanding the causes of the illness.


Identifying and understanding the hidden forces that conspire to undermine progress is fundamental to reaching a person’s full potential for healing.


Finding an Outlet


Finding an outlet for our stress is critical to reducing it, but it could be impossible if, like Ellen and Catherine, we don’t even know this pent-up anger exists. 


In the above stories, it became clear that the remnants of childhood stress left a trail of clues … even though they were anything but obvious.


Many of us, whether we’re aware of it or not, grew up in homes that had some degree of dysfunction. I know I did. After reading Ellen’s and Catherine’s stories, I spent some time sifting through my own past, and I found several long-buried issues marinating in anger and disappointment. 


Many of us have buried anger and festering resentments toward parents and other individuals who caused us stress during our childhood, but without self-examination, they continue to fester, out of sight and out of mind.


First Forgive Yourself 


Many of us may unconsciously harbour shame, anger or guilt for the transgressions that others may have committed toward us. Rage channelled into the body may surface in the form of illness.


According to recent studies, we must uncover it before we can put it behind us. By doing so, you build a foundation for self-esteem, the first step toward healing. 


If you’ve had a difficult childhood, consider it a victory. You went through it and came out the other side. It should be a source of triumph, not humiliation. 


As a child, you were incredibly vulnerable. You were incapable of higher-level reasoning and discernment. If you were given a lot of negative, false ideas, especially when in an emotional state, your subconscious mind may have filed this away as being gospel. 


In dysfunctional homes, children learn that they are:


           • unworthy of love, approval, or attention

           • unable to measure up to expected standards

           • incapable of having the boundaries of their body respected

           • powerless to change their environment

           • obligated to solve every problem 


These false concepts can become fundamental assumptions for the child and later the adult. To recover from childhood stress, replacing false beliefs with a true understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses is essential. 


For example, parents who are unable to respect your accomplishments are a sign of their shortcomings, not yours. 


As Dr. Clarke explained it, you may have spent your life trying to live up to their expectations. It can help to imagine yourself imposing the same criticism and impossible expectations on a child you know.


When you imagine the hurt expression on that child’s face, it will give you a clearer understanding of what you have endured.” (1)


Seeking Professional Help


Speaking to a mental health counsellor or a therapist can offer invaluable guidance in understanding the link between past events and present problems.


For example, consider the concept of a secret. The main thing known about secrets is that keeping them is unhealthy for the brain. (2)


Psychologist James Pennebaker and his colleagues studied what happened when rape and incest victims, acting out of shame and guilt, chose to hold secrets inside. After years of study, Pennebaker concluded that …


“the act of not discussing or confiding the event with another may be more damaging than having experienced the event per se.” 


He and his team discovered that when subjects confessed or wrote about their deeply held secrets, their health improved, their number of doctor visits went down, and there were measurable decreases in their stress hormone levels. (3)


As both Dr. Clarke and Dr. Pennebaker suggest, writing a letter to parents or other individuals who caused us stress during childhood is a powerful therapeutic technique. 


Since reading Dr. Clarke’s work, I have written several letters to people in my past (never mailed, of course). I’ve found the exercise immeasurably beneficial. 


Writing can almost magically pull long-buried thoughts and emotions into conscious awareness. Once exposed to the light of day, they miraculously lose their power. 


Dr. Pennebaker also encourages writing letters as a form of therapy; in fact, Pennebaker has asked hundreds of people, including college students, community members, maximum-security prisoners, people laid off from their jobs and new mothers. 


Most people write about personal, often deeply troubling incidents, such as the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or sexual and physical abuse. 


Not surprisingly, people find it upsetting to write about such events and, right after doing so, report more distress than do participants who write about superficial topics (such as their plans for the day).


However, as time goes by, people show remarkable benefits from the writing exercise. People who write about emotional experiences report better moods, get better grades in college, miss fewer workdays, show improved immune system functioning, and are less likely to visit physicians. Writing about emotional experiences is distressing in the short term but has quite positive long-term effects. (4, 5)


Remember that finding outlets for stress is vital to managing it.


If you suspect you are holding onto some deeply harboured issues, I urge you to consider speaking to a mental health counsellor or a therapist. But before that, you might take Dr. Pennebaker’s advice and write a letter about the issue—or to the person (not to be sent)  who caused the problem. 


You might just find this exercise to be as therapeutic as I have.


  1. Clarke, D.M.D., “They Can’t Find Anything Wrong: 7 Keys to Understanding, Treating, and Healing Stress Illness,” Sentient Publications, 2007
  2. Kelly, A. E., “The Psychology of Secrets,” The Plenum Series in Social/Clinical Psychology, New York: Plenum 2002
  3. Pennebaker, J. W., “Traumatic Experience and Psychosomatic Disease: Exploring the roles of behavioral inhibition, obsession and confiding,” Canadian Psychology, 1985, (26): 82-951           
  4. Pennebaker, J. W., “Opening Up: The healing power of expressing emotions,” Revised edition, New York: Guildford, 1997                                                    
  5. Pennebaker, J. W., “Writing About Emotional Experiences as a Therapeutic Process,” Psychological Science, 1997, (8): 162-166