We know that those who suffer significant childhood trauma are more likely to suffer from emotional dysregulation (i.e. problems controlling their emotions) in adulthood compared to those who had a relatively stable upbringing. This is especially true, of course, if they develop borderline personality disorder (BPD) as a result of their childhood experiences (BPD is strongly associated with childhood trauma and one of its main symptoms is emotional dysregulation).
AMYGDALA, HIPPOCAMPUS AND PREFRONTAL CORTEX :
It is theorized (and there is much evidence building up which supports the theory) that one main reason childhood trauma causes the person who suffered it to develop problems controlling his/her emotions in later life is that the experience of significant childhood trauma can lead to damage of the brain structure called the amygdala which is responsible for our emotional reactions to events. (It is also thought that the experience of childhood trauma can also damage other areas of the brain that affect our emotional responses, such as the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.
The three types of emotional control difficulties that an individual who has suffered significant childhood trauma may develop are:
1) Severe emotional over-reactions.
2) A propensity to experience sudden shifts in one’s emotional state (also known as emotional lability).
3) Once triggered, emotions take a long time to return to their normal levels.
Let’s look at each of these in turn:
1) Severe emotional overreactions:
We may react emotionally disproportionately to the things that happen to us. For example, disproportionately angry as a result of what would objectively appear to be very minor provocation, disproportionately anxious in response to a very minor threat or even suicidal behaviour/ self-harming behaviour in response to events that the ‘average’ person could take in their stride with little difficulty.
To take a personal example: when I was a teenager I had a minor argument with a friend. As a result, he demanded that I leave his house. Before I knew it, I had punched him. It was only years later (because I’m stupid) that it occurred that I’d reacted as I did because the incident reminded me, on an unconscious level, of my mother throwing me out of the house some years earlier (when I was thirteen years old); in so doing, it had triggered intensely painful feelings associated with the memory of this ultimate rejection.
2) A propensity to experience sudden shifts in one’s emotional state:
For example, one minute the individual may be withdrawn, depressed and reticent but then suddenly swing, with little or no provocation, into a highly agitated, angry and voluble state.
3) Once triggered, emotions take a long time to return to their normal levels:
It is thought that this is due to problems of communication between the prefrontal cortex and amygdala (in healthy individuals the prefrontal cortex acts efficiently to send messages to the amygdala to reduce its activity once the cause of the emotions is over – the amygdala being a part of the brain which gives rise to emotional responses).
Indeed, it is thought all three of the above problems occur due to brain dysfunction caused, at least in part, by early life trauma.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).