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How Trauma Affects The Brain

5 min read

How Trauma Affects The Brain – Most Americans are familiar with the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a condition that affects veterans or those exposed to horrific violence. In fact, post-traumatic stress disorder arose from conditions informally called “war neurosis” or “shell shock.” What is less known is that many children emerge from childhood with similar conditions that fit the clinical profile of PTSD. Growing up with instability, abuse, neglect, and poverty can lead to stress and trauma that looks like PTSD and affects development. Trauma is so common among children that doctors have coined a new term to try to explain it: developmental trauma disorder.

How is it possible, in a society as safe and developed as America, for our children to emerge from childhood in a state similar to those who went to war?

How Trauma Affects The Brain

Researchers have found that prolonged exposure to stress and aversive experiences harms people, and the effects continue long after the stress and aversive experiences end. When we encounter situations that our brain perceives as life-threatening, our body prepares for a fight-or-flight response. Our body produces cortisol, the stress hormone, so we can muster the energy needed to escape or confront a threat.

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Imagine going into the jungle and encountering a tiger: we recognize the potential danger and our body produces cortisol so we can fight the tiger or run away. This rapid mobilization of your body’s resources is essential for human survival. But when a threat occurs over a long period of time, or our brain and body continue to prepare for fight or flight even after the threat has passed, then you have signs of PTSD.

This heightened state of arousal manifests itself in increased vigilance, anxiety, and restlessness. Memories or external triggers can stimulate a response, and even the thought of an aversive experience causes a release of cortisol. When this happens to children, it is much more devastating because the chronic stress response alters the child’s development.

Their brains and bodies develop differently as a result of living in situations that feel unsafe, abusive, or neglectful. This is one of the differences that has led researchers to distinguish between PTSD and developmental traumatic disorder.

When traumatic exposure occurs during critical periods of a child’s development, the essence of a person’s being changes. Take, for example, a child between the ages of 7 and 11 who is being sexually abused by his stepfather. Their entire sense of the world and themselves is turned upside down by this disorienting and frightening experience. Children survive unthinkable violence by “adapting” to it in ways that alter their development.

How Trauma Can Affect A Child’s Brain, Development And Relationships — Gheorg

They thrive on feelings of fear, mistrust, shame, defeat and humility that shape their self-esteem. They anticipate and expect the trauma to recur and structure their relationships around the fear of abandonment or victimization. In the mind and heart of a child who has been sexually abused, the fear of abandonment and the shame they feel can prevent them from telling people what is happening.

We live in a time when stories of childhood sexual abuse appear in the news almost daily. The number of victims associated with the sex scandals involving priest and gymnast Larry Nassar is staggering. Although such cases receive a lot of attention, many people are sexually abused by family members.

According to the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, more than 42 million people in America have been victims of sexual abuse. When other types of abuse and neglect are taken into account, these numbers rise even higher.

We are a society full of people who have been negatively impacted by their childhood experiences. Outcomes for those affected by childhood abuse and neglect are generally not positive, and there is a renewed call to action to treat child abuse as a public health issue.

Traumatic Brain Injuries

Survivors of childhood abuse are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, have addiction problems, be obese, have chronic health problems, and ultimately have a shorter life expectancy associated with health problems and/or suicide.

What if we reframed the obesity and addiction epidemics we see around us every day as the result of untreated trauma? If we look at the root causes of our unhealthy behavior, we may be able to better address these issues.

One of the reasons why the consequences of childhood abuse, especially sexual abuse, are so dire is that victims have largely suffered in silence due to fear and stigma. Our societal reluctance to address this issue is preventing people from getting the support they need to recover.

To reverse the devastating impact of ACEs on people’s health, we must change the way schools, health care providers, and law enforcement respond to maladaptive behavior.

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People who specialize in trauma have realized that those who need help the most are usually the hardest to help. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse usually do not disclose the abuse until later in life, if at all. By the time these people reach the hands of professionals, they may be engaging in highly self-destructive, dangerous and addictive behavior to cope with what has happened to them. Depending on the age of onset and severity of the injury, the experience can alter a person’s development.

These individuals were denied the opportunity to master important milestones related to self-regulation, a sense of control, and the ability to properly process and integrate information. Remember, their brain was in survival mode and the person’s sense of self was altered by their experiences. Because of their experience, they find it difficult to trust people, including professionals and government officials; the very people who need help.

A fifteen-year-old boy from a single-parent family walks around his neighborhood at night drunk with marijuana in his pocket. The police officer confronts the teenager and the teenager becomes hostile towards the police officer. The confrontation escalates and the officer begins screaming and approaches him from behind to handcuff him. The teenager becomes enraged and punches the officer.

A 16-year-old pregnant girl runs away from home and Child Protective Services takes her to a doctor for prenatal testing at a local clinic. She is six months pregnant and has never had a gynecological examination. A male doctor enters the room, closes the door and tells her to undress so he can perform an examination. The girl is worried, screams at the doctor and refuses to let the doctor examine her.

Learn About Traumatic Brain Injuries

An obese 11-year-old student is teased by his peers and socially isolated. They are often excluded from classes and not included in classes. The student did not turn in homework for weeks and did not finish test questions. They fail most of their classes and are considered naughty and lazy by the teacher. The counselor approaches the student to discuss what is “wrong” with the student and sees a self-inflicted cut on the student’s arm.

If the police officer, doctor, or teacher in these scenarios knew that these children were being sexually abused, what could have been done differently? The answer to this question lies at the heart of the trauma-informed model.

The first change in the trauma-informed model is the recognition that the maladaptive behaviors these individuals exhibit are rooted in trauma. Rather than viewing a person’s behavior as oppositional, rebellious, willful, or antisocial, it is important to view the child’s behavior as a survival response to an abusive situation. Once professionals reframe behavior through the lens of trauma, they open the door to treatment.

Jen joined the Focus for Health team in January 2019. Jen has spent the majority of her career in the human services field, particularly working with high-risk populations and people with disabilities. Over the years, she has incorporated her interest in health and nutrition into her career. Jen has worked with a variety of organizations over the past 25 years and has written numerous cookbooks and healthy lifestyle guides aimed at people with disabilities, as well as WIC and SNAP recipients. When Jen isn’t working, she can be found cooking, gardening, and driving her kids to sports practice. In addition to her work in social services, Jen is actively involved in various boards and organizations in her community. Jen holds degrees in psychology from Rutgers University and Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Childhood Trauma May Affect The Structure Of The Brain

© 2023 Focus on Health. All rights reserved | Privacy Policy and Terms of Use Focus for Health does not accept any monetary donations. Trauma affects the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus. Ongoing trauma is associated with “lasting changes in these brain regions” (Bremmer, 2006).

When a potential threat exists, the amygdala sends an instant message to the hippocampus, activating the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is an unconscious system that regulates body functions such as digestion, breathing, and heart rate. If we have to run

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