Our brains developed over millions of years of evolution. Different parts of the modern human brain evolved at different periods of this enormous time span.
The most primitive part of the modern brain, which evolved first, is known, rather unflatteringly, as the REPTILIAN brain. This part of our brain is ‘in charge’ of BASIC SURVIVAL PROCESSES such as the physiological aspects of the well-known FIGHT/FLIGHT RESPONSE such as heart rate (click here to read my article entitled : ‘ Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn.’
In contrast, the part of our brain which developed most recently (the NEOCORTEX) is involved with HIGHER LEVEL PROCESSING such as complex learning, talking and forming relationships with others.
Children who experience CHRONIC and SEVERE TRAUMA as they are growing up automatically UTILIZE THE MORE PRIMITIVE PART OF THE BRAIN FAR MORE THAN NORMAL as they are driven by the adverse environment that they inhabit to FOCUS ON SURVIVAL
This comes at the expense of the development of the regions of the brain concerned with higher level mental functioning – indeed, this part of the brain can become SIGNIFICANTLY UNDER-UTILIZED, thus IMPAIRING ITS DEVELOPMENT. This can lead to the child:
– developing a brain which is smaller than normal
– developing less neural connection in the parts of the brain involved with higher level mental processing.
In short, then, the primitive part of the brain becomes OVER-EXERCISED, whilst the part of the brain which has most recently evolved becomes UNDER-EXERCISED.
The three regions of the brain shown above evolved at different times in our evolutionary history – the most primitive part is called the REPTILLIAN BRAIN and controls our basic survival mechanisms. The most recently evolved part is the NEOCORTEX which is involved in higher level mental processes such as abstract thought.
EFFECTS OF PRIMITIVE PART BRAIN BEING ‘OVER-EXERCISED’.
This results in the child becoming HYPER-SENSITIVE to the ADVERSE EFFECTS OF STRESS.
Because of this, such a child is far less able to deal with stress (ie s/he has a far lower stress- tolerance threshold) than children who have been fortunate enough to grow up in a more benign environment (all else being equal).
In other words, children who have grown up in traumatic environments MAY EXPERIENCE SEVERE PHYSIOLOGICAL STRESS RESPONSES TO RELATIVELY MINOR TRIGGERS/PROVOCATIONS.
Such dramatic responses are especially likely if the triggering event reminds the child, however tangentally, of the original experience of trauma.
Children suffering from such a condition may:
– have great difficulty concentrating/focussing their attention
– experience high levels of restlessness and agitation
– have high levels of anxiety
– behave aggressively/violently when under stress
– bully others (often, subconsciously, to gain a sense of control in a world in which they feel essentially powerless).
POST TRAUMATIC STRESS (PTSD) IN CHILDREN:
If the child develops PTSD as a result of his/her traumatic experiences his/her body will develop a chronic tendency to OVER-PRODUCE STRESS HORMONES (eg cortisol) on a day-to-day basis which may INTERFERE WITH HIS/HER ABILITY TO LEARN.
OTHER SYMPTOMS OF PTSD IN CHILDHOOD:
– dissociation (‘zoning out’) – click here to read my article on this
– arrested development (eg suddenly stops talking)
– nightmares/night terrors
– frequent waking during the night
– violent play (eg acting out violent scenarios with toys)
– frequent drawing/painting of extremely violent scenes
– bed wetting
– somatic complaints (eg stomach aches, headaches etc)
– general behavioural problems
– problem drinking/drug use
THE GOOD NEWS:
However, the positive news is that, because of an innate quality of the brain called NEUROPLASTICITY (click here to read my article on this), it is able to repair and ‘rewire’ itself, thus reversing the damage done in childhood. The following experiences may help this to happen:
– physical activity
– the development of new skills
– relaxation and avoidance of stress
– healthy, pleasurable experiences
– the development of warm, emotionally fulfilling relationships
– enjoyable social activity
On the other hand, the following are likely to hinder recovery:
– continued exposure to stress
– substance misuse
(Click here to read more about this).
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
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Copyright 2015 Child Abuse, Trauma and Recovery