Category Archives: Effect Of Trauma On Brain Articles

Recovery: How the Brain can ‘Rewire’ Itself (Neuroplasticity).

childhood_trauma_effects

Severe childhood trauma can adversely affect the way in which the brain develops, leading to, for example, extremes in anxiety or great difficulty in controlling emotions. However, there has been exciting research conducted showing that the brain is able, under certain conditions, to ‘rewire’ itself, correcting its own faulty circuitry, and, thus, alleviating the behavioural and emotional problems caused by the original damage.

The adult brain is much more changeable and modifiable than had previously been believed. There is now a large amount of evidence to show that damaged neural (brain) circuitry resulting from severe childhood trauma can be corrected, reshaping our brain anatomy and consequent behaviour, with the right kind of therapeutic interventions. In other words, it is now clear that brain architecture continues to change throughout adulthood and this can be manipulated in highly beneficial directions.

Many people who suffer extreme childhood trauma go on to develop personality disorders as adults; one hallmark of these disorders is rigid, destructive behavioural patterns. Research is now showing, however, that certain therapeutic interventions, due to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to change itself), can change those behaviours to become more flexible and adaptive (helpful in creating a more successful life).

Another problem those who have suffered extreme childhood trauma  develop later on is extreme and obsessive worry which can be so severe it is pathologically categorized as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). For the purposes of explaining how neuroplasticity works, let’s take that (ie OCD) as our example of a problem which needs to be alleviated.

With OCD, obsessive worries can become so extreme that the person experiencing them becomes actively suicidal. Such a tortured state of mind can persist for months or even (as in my own case) years. Indeed, one suicide attempt nearly killed me and I even underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) — to no avail, most regretably (see the ‘My Story’ category if you want to read a bit more about this profoundly distressing period of my life). When anxiety is this pathological, medications may dampen the symptoms somewhat, but, this, of course, fails to address the root psychological cause of the problem.

With this kind of anxiety, terrible and terrifying events are unremittingly anticipated – whether these are largely imagined or not is not the point : the problem is that the threats FEEL real. When something truly appalling is even remotely possible, in the mind of the individual experiencing obsessional anxiety, it FEELS INEVITABLE.

In order to address such life-threatening (due to risk of suicide) conditions, the psychologist Jeffrey Schwartz has developed a NEUROPLASTICITY-BASED TREATMENT; it has already yielded excitingly successful results.

To understand his form of treatment, let’s first examine the theory of why those suffering from OCD become mentally fixated on their intense anxieties.

Schwartz, first of all, compared the brains of those who suffered from OCD with the brains of those who did not (by taking scans). After he delivered his form of psychotherapy, he took the scans again which revealed the brains of the patients had normalized.

In ‘normal’ people, when something goes wrong, there is a period of anxiety which gradually wears off. However, with OCD sufferers, the period of anxiety is not only much more intense but also maintains an iron mental grip on the sufferer – the individual becomes ‘stuck’ in this intense anxiety phase. So what is going on in neurological terms?

Schwartz generously enlightened us in the following manner :

1) When something anxiety inducing occurs, a region of the brain, known as the ORBITAL FRONTAL CORTEX, is alerted. Activity in this region of the brain is far greater in those who suffer OCD – it becomes HYPERACTIVE.

2) A chemical message is then sent from that brain region to another brain region – the CINGULATE GYRUS, triggering the anxiety response. IN PEOPLE WITH OCD, the activity here is, again, far more than normally intense. Crucially, too, in people with OCD, the intense activity in this brain region STAYS ‘LOCKED ON’ (as if the ‘ON SWITCH’ which has activated it CANNOT BE ‘SWITCHED OFF’). Indeed, Schwartz referred to this phenomenon as ‘BRAIN LOCK’. (In ‘normal’ individuals the activity in the stimulated brain regions gently fades away, as the brain designed it to do).

The treatment Schwartz developed is designed to ‘UNLOCK’, and normalize, the manner in which the brain’s circuitry works.

THE FIRST STEP in the therapy is for the OCD sufferer to RELABEL what s/he is experiencing AS A SYMPTOM OF HIS/HER OCD. S/he should remind him/herself that it is ‘just’ the neurological malfunctioning (the ‘brainlock’) which is the true cause of his/her discomfort, NOT the content of the anxiety itself. This relabeling provides some mental distance from the content of the obsessive concern. The more the person can concentrate on the physiological reasons for the feeling of distress, and the more s/he can distance her/himself from its actual content, the more effective the therapy tends to be.

Once this has been acknowledged, THE SECOND STEP is to REFOCUS THE ATTENTION ON SOMETHING POSITIVE and, ideally, pleasure-inducing.

As the person gets better at implementing these steps, new brain circuits start to develop : the obsessive circuits begin to be bypassed. Of course, changes do not materialize instantaneously – the brain takes time to ‘rewire’ itself.

If the person finds implementing the above two steps difficult to do, s/he should remind him/herself that even distancing him/herself from the content of the anxiety and doing something pleasurable instead for just one minute will help develop the beneficial new brain circuitry.

Two rather pithy sayings, often quoted by psychologists, help us to remember the theory behind the therapy :

– ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’

– ‘neurons that fire apart, wire apart’

To end this post with an encouraging statistic, it is worth recording that 80% of Schwartz’s patients got better when this therapy was combined with medication.

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Copyright 2013 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery

How Neurological Problems Relating to Childhood Trauma can be Addressed.

childhood-trauma-fact-sheet

As I said in my previous post, neurological problems resulting from childhood trauma can be reversed, and it is to the research into this exciting and fast developing area of study that I now turn.

Studies have shown that because SEROTONIN (a chemical, also known as a neurotransmitter, in the brain) can become depleted by childhood trauma, ANTI-DEPRESSANTS (eg. setraline) which increase the availability of serotonin in the brain can help to REVERSE the harmful effects of childhood trauma on it.

However, the beneficial effects of anti-depressant treatment is greatly increased if, in addition, the childhood trauma survivor’s ENVIRONMENT is also significantly improved, providing as many positive experiences as possible. Indeed, positive experiences can BENEFICIALLY AFFECT BRAIN CHEMISTRY (eg. by increasing the availability of serotonin and other important neurotransmitters in the brain), just as anti-depressants can.

So: brain chemistry can be affected by environmental factors, as well as by medication.

Because survivors of childhood trauma often FEEL OVERWHELMED BY THEIR EMOTIONS, studies have been conducted which also show that activities that discharge these emotions in a creative or constructive manner can also change brain chemistry for the better. Examples include drawing, painting, writing or even undertaking exercises such as hitting a punch bag at the gym.

In addition to human studies, there have also been some studies on animals. There is now a growing body of evidence that new experiences can regenerate animals’ brain cells. Studies in this area are likely to be conducted on humans in the near future.

Because many of these studies are new, their implications have not yet been fully taken advantage of in the construction of treatment programs. Indeed, it is estimated that fewer than 10% of childhood trauma survivors are receiving appropriate therapeutic interventions.

The exciting conclusion that we are able to draw from all of the above is that there is now good evidence that even if the brain has undergone neurological damage as a result of childhood trauma, this CAN BE REVERSED due to the fact that THE BRAIN CONTINUES TO CHANGE THROUGHOUT LIFE.

brain_damage_Caused_by_childhood_trauma

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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Neurological Effects: How Childhood Trauma can Damage the Developing Physical Brain.

 

trauma and brain development

Trauma And Brain Development

How are early life trauma and brain development related?

Recently, there have been various cutting-edge studies into the neurological effects of child abuse and child neglect- in other words, how childhood trauma has been shown to damage the developing physical brain.

It has been shown that BEHAVIOURAL PROBLEMS, following childhood trauma, can be scientifically traced back in origin to damage, caused by child abuse, neglect etc., to both the brain’s PHYSICAL STRUCTURE and its CHEMISTRY. As well as behavioural problems resulting from this damage, it has also been shown to impair the sufferer’s ability to LEARN.

Indeed, it has been estimated that about 75% of children in the care system could have suffered such adverse effects on the physical brain following their particular traumas.

THE POSITIVE NEWS

This is all very depressing; however, there is also good news: the damage that the brain has suffered is NOT ALWAYS PERMANENT. If therapeutic interventions are made, especially when the brain is still developing during childhood, the brain is able, to some extent (due to its plasticity), to rewire itself in such a way that development can return much closer to the norm than it would have done without such intervention. The intervention needs to include the child being given a loving, secure, stable and supportive environment.

In general, the more protracted and intense the childhood trauma, the more serious the damaging effects on the physical brain will have been.

effects of childhood trauma on the physical development of the brain

Above –  Trauma and brain development: An illustration of how childhood trauma can seriously, adversely affect physical development of the brain

 

WHICH BRAIN REGIONS ARE AFFECTED?

Severe and prolonged childhood trauma has been demonstrated to potentially damage:

a) THE CORTEX (the function of the cortex is to facilitate RATIONAL THINKING).

b) THE HIPPOCAMPUS (the function of the hippocampus is, in part, to facilitate the REGULATION of our EMOTIONS).

Given that these regions of the brain are sometimes damaged by childhood trauma, and given the function of these regions, we need hardly be surprised that if we have suffered childhood trauma we might find ourselves behaving IRRATIONALLY at times and finding it very difficult to CONTROL OUR EMOTIONS.

Indeed, in one study it was found those who had suffered childhood trauma were much more likely to have:

a) an underdeveloped cortex

b) a smaller hippocampus

Further studies have found that another brain area, the AMYGDALA (which also has a very prevalent role in regulating our emotions) becomes OVERSENSITIVE and OVERACTIVE in those who have suffered childhood trauma. As a result, it will often signal extreme danger – putting us constantly on ‘red-alert’, as it were – even when, in objective terms, there is no, or very little, danger threatening us. Our fear response, then, operates on a hair-trigger.

HOW BRAIN CHEMISTRY IS AFFECTED BY CHILDHOOD TRAUMA:

Studies have also found that prolonged and severe STRESS in early life can also affect the production of chemicals (also known as neurotransmitters) in the brain. For example:

a) CORTISOL (which regulates stress)

b) SEROTONIN (which is closely tied to MOOD and BEHAVIOUR)

Dysfunction of these chemicals leads, respectively, to:

a) us becoming far more susceptible and far more likely to be adversely affected by stress

b) us becoming far more prone to severe, CLINICAL DEPRESSION and much more prone than normal to IMPULSIVE VIOLENCE/AGGRESSION.

child_trauma_and_NEUROPLASTICITY, functional_and_structural_ neuroplasticity

Above eBook available on Amazon for immediate download.  CLICK HERE.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Copyright 2013 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery