You are currently viewing The impact of trauma

The impact of trauma

While it is commonly assumed that we can’t recall anything about our first few years of life, because we are really young, our minds always know what happens to us. Research has shown that there is a strong correlation between childhood trauma and success in various aspects within adulthood. Experiences of trauma, abuse or neglect are known to determine how the brain will form and how our DNA will be structured. World-renowned philosopher Aristotle said  “Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.” This quote is very popular and is often still referred to today because a child’s cognitive, social and emotional developments within their early years has been said to directly link to their success in adulthood.

A child’s interactions within their family, culture and community can play a crucial role in shaping their brain’s development and function. During the first three years of a child’s life the main areas that develop are on the right side of the brain and this side mainly processes communication, facial expressions, and body language at age 3. The sole impact of pain and mental damage on the brain can be a complicated process. This cycle differs based on multiple factors but especially age. 

The sections of the brain that are vulnerable to trauma are the amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. This is because the brain’s anxiety core aka the amygdala is over-stimulated by the trauma, which leads the brain to believe it will be fearful all the time, even if not in danger. As a result the brain’s prefrontal cortex is less capable of working correctly, losing the capacity to make rational choices, regulate emotions and coordinate thoughts. Over time, the portion of the brain that regulates emotions is dysregulated, implying that the individual can feel emotions very strongly, not strongly enough, too often, not long enough or improperly. Therefore if during these first 3 years a child has negative interactions within their environment then they will struggle with the consequences listed above in adulthood. Another study conducted by Daniela Kaufer, UC Berkeley professor of Integrative biology shared findings that also explain how chronic stress affects learning and memory. These findings can be found in the journal of Molecular Psychiatry (2014). 

Additionally, childhood trauma is very serious and can have detrimental impacts on health in adulthood if left unresolved because after suffering trauma the brain may grow wounds. Such scars occur in the brain’s neuronal circuits, thereby blocking signals from going from one location to another. Neural pathways are sort of like the brain’s tracks, while neurons are like the trains, which hold messages. If the track is damaged due to trauma maybe childhood sexual assault triggered a major track derailment then a neuron aka a train can no longer follow the route. This track can never be 100% repaired again after that however a new alternative track can be formed with the help of therapy.

A study published in 2018 conducted by neuroscientist Berkeley at the University of California showed that the genes in the brain cells of baby mice were altered when they were ignored by their parents. Human beings are known to experience identical changes and these changes are known to influence some neurological disorders. According to Berkeley, persistent stress and cortisol can change and permanently affect the brain. Because of this, scientists assume that when an infant is subject to a lot of stress or trauma, behavioural and emotional difficulties such as depression, anxiety, mood disorders and learning difficulties are inevitable. Another study conducted by Mark Cummings, developmental psychologist at Notre Dame University told ‘Developmental Science’ that chronic stress from prolonged exposure to destructive violence can contribute to children feeling stressed, depressed, helpless, frustrated, hostile, behaviorally troubled, sick, exhausted, and struggling academically. 

Berkeley’s study found that chronic stress allows stem cells to turn into a form of cell that blocks ties to the portion of the brain connected with memory and learning, the brain’s prefrontal cortex, while at the same time aiding anxiety, PTSD, and depression grow. Studies often indicate that the form of stress is significant with respect to the brain results. “Good” stress, like the stress of preparing for a exam or athletic competition preparation, will potentially help the brain grow resilience. The form of stress that is harmful to the brain is “poor” stress, which is persistent stress or stress induced by injuries or other traumatic experiences.

Studies at Pennsylvania State University and Duke University studied over 700 children around the US between kindergarten and 25 years of age and, two decades on, they find a strong link between their social competence as kindergarteners and their success as adult. The 20-year research found that socially confident children who could communicate without intervention with their peers were much more likely to obtain a university degree and have a full-time career by age 25 than those with poor social abilities who were incapable of being supportive to others, regulating their emotions and handling issues on their own. Kristin Schubert, program director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said “This study shows that helping children develop social and emotional skills is one of the most important things we can do to prepare them for a healthy future.” She also said “From an early age, these skills can determine whether a child goes to university or prison, and whether they end up employed or addicted.” This statement goes hand in hand with Aristotle’s quote that was listed in the beginning of this post. 

Dave Asprey wrote about how his guest Dan Brown, PhD who is an expert on attachment theory explored the relationship between trauma and healthy relationships. He explained that during the first 12 to 20 months of a child’s life this is when they develop their attachment patterns to their caregivers. He continued on to add that during their third and fourth year of life is when a child develops core conflict relationship skills. Depending on how these two stages go for a child, their experiences will determine whether that child has “problems with” developing relationships or whether that child has “problems while within” relationships in adulthood. These attachment patterns can be disrupted by trauma.

The positive news is that there is research to show that while the brain can shift in a detrimental way that creates issues with behavioural, cognitive, and learning, it can also adjust for the better, in adult life. The brain becomes more vulnerable in young people and ready to change, but adults are able to retrain their brains and build different neuronal mechanisms and combat anxiety and depression. Daily exercise, yoga , and meditation are some of the common, simple and freeways to lower cortisol rates. A balanced diet, certain vitamins, and good sleeping patterns will all help strengthen and retrain the brain. For others, these approaches work alone in retraining the brain. To support many others, medicine, counselling or even technical advances such as TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation) are required to achieve change.

Scientists believe that the brain and its DNA will alter during existence, and are especially sensitive to early childhood changes. Stress and depression can affect the DNA and neuronal structures of the brain so profoundly that they can induce serious behavioural and emotional problems. Although we can’t regulate what happens to us in infancy, we can work as adults to retrain our brains and our reaction to stress.

‘The Attachment Project’ founded by Jock Gorgon, and led by several of the worlds leading experts in trauma and attachment states that the ideal “attachment pattern” is a secure attachment. A child with a secure attachment to their care-givers will grow up to show healthy and balances behaviour within relationships. Additionally they will seek emotional support from their partners and in turn provide it back. These individuals will grow up being comfortable within their own company and can regulate their emotions healthily. This pattern is formed by the children having their needs met by their care-givers. In turn they will turn to their care-givers for support during times of distress to seek comfort from a safe and reliable source.

In opposition however a child with an ‘avoidant’ attachment to their care-givers might “disregard affection and show aggression among other children.” In adulthood this can impact relationships because it can result in anti-social behaviour and “in extreme cases avoidant adults can become violent.” This attachment pattern forms when the child’s care-givers do not cater to their child’s attachment needs. For example if a child is crying because they are hungry and they are not having their nutrition needs met then this attachment style can form. A child’s needs can be neglected for many different reasons. A really unfortunate but common example could be if care-givers are taking illegal substances and are physically and cognitively incapable of recognising that a child has these needs to begin with. Using strict and controlling parenting methods can also contribute to this pattern too according to leading experts from The Attachment Project. Another factor can be having a care-giver who does not “tolerate any strong display of emotions and expects their children to be independent and tough.” 

Alternatively a child can have an “anxious attachment” and this results in children feeling “very sensitive and responsive to others’ needs, often at their own expense.” Children with this pattern tend to feel stressed out when their parents leave and upon their parents return they still find it hard to calm down. This pattern can cause “anxiety disorders and attention deficit disorders in adulthood.” Additionally adults with this childhood pattern generally grow up to be overly critical of themselves and seek external validation to self-soothe. This pattern can develop when care-givers “over-involve their child into their own feelings and emotional needs.” An example of this could be if an adult recently experienced a divorce and decided that it was ok to vent to their child about how hurt they are feeling and about other hardships they are facing as a result like financial instability. 

Next is a disorganised attachment pattern which involves children feeling scared of their care-givers and showing signs of ambivalence. This could look like a child walking metres behind their care-giver or expressing anger and aggression without a clear reason. Additionally it can also look like a child freezing up around their parents indicating that they may feel like they are walking on egg shells. Adults with this childhood pattern generally tend to abuse substances and have a variety of mental health concerns regarding depression, anti-social personality disorder and borderline personality disorder. In conjunction with this they tend to “avoid emotional intimacy and are not able to trust others due to a fear of getting hurt.” This pattern is generally formed as a result of abuse and it confuses children because their care-givers who are supposed to be their source of “safety” are also their source of fear therefore it results in a lot of confusion and possibly resentment. This pattern is also formed by care-givers who struggle to build emotional intimacy with their children and those who are inconsistent and unpredictable. 

Author Dan Pink states in his book “Drive” that trying to control a child’s behaviour with rewards or punishment will not result in the desired behaviour. Alternatively, kids will become sneakier so that they do not have to get scolded again like they did the first time. It also creates a lot of resentment within children. 

Another theorist who backs up these findings is John Bowlby, a Britist psychologist, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. According to Bowlby (1958) children are still trying to figure the out the world during their early years therefore they need care-givers who they can turn to in order to get approval from to determine whether the world is a safe and trustworthy place to be. If they do not have someone who is consistent and reliable to turn to during times that they need clarification and support from, then this can disrupt their attachment pattern. He too believes that in adulthood this can have many negative consequences. 

There was a Finnish study published in the journal of Nature Communications that stated women who are exposed to the stress of war and have undergone childhood trauma as a result are more likely to become mothers at a younger age than those with a healthy childhood. The findings recorded women who live in dangerous conditions with high mortality levels are best off reproducing earlier rather than running the chance of eventual loss. Overall, the research indicates that the extreme stress endured by children raised in conflict areas, natural disasters or maybe even epidemics (such as the COVID-19 epidemic we are in now) will have unpredictable consequences that can resurface in their lives later on. The results suggest that women who fought in the war were younger mothers with more children than those of the same generation who did not participate in any war. 

Lead researcher Dr. Robert Lynch of the University of Turku says that if stress can be calculated in simple items like the timing of motherhood, then it almost definitely has significant consequences on all of our other essential habits, such as general risk tolerance, sociality or the rate of sexual maturity. This is interesting because we often joke about “twelvies” who grow up too quick and joke around about how when we were 12 we would wear very ugly clothing, however nowadays the average 12 year old looks about 16. Now that I have heard about the findings from this Finnish study I find this quite alarming because it makes me wonder what kind of trauma is happening nationwide that could be contributing to this early sexual maturity within our women? There have been some interesting scientific findings that prove that women are known to sexually mature faster than men, for example the 2013 study published in ‘Cerebral Cortex’ however I wonder whether this also has something to do with trauma?

It is a known fact that trauma occurs among men and women however did you know that 1 in 6 women experience abuse before the age of fifteen? (ABS, 2017). Did you also know that 1 in 4 young people think its normal for guys to pressure girls into sex? (Hall and Partners Open Mind, 2015). Some other facts that may blow your mind are that 1 in 3 women aged 18-24 have experienced sexual harassment (ABS, 2017), and 1 in 3 young people don’t think controlling someone is a form of violence (Hall and Partners Open Mind, 2015). These are all very alarming statistics to me and I feel that it should be openly discussed in schools and universities so that more awareness around trauma can be created to achieve collective change.

Senior author Dr. John Loehr of the University of Helsinki said that the large volume of data enabled the researchers to compare people pre and post war and also to take account of family history. In support of the hypothesis the research offers clear proof that stress has an effect on reproductive timing and sexual maturity. Now that you know all of this information and understand that there are millions of other resources out there on trauma what will you do with it? I personally will be creating as much awareness as I can within appropriate contexts because I do feel that more people need to understand how detrimental trauma can be. Additionally I feel that more people might be interested in understanding that the impacts of trauma can be reversed in adulthood through therapy. 

Leave a Reply