We have seen from other articles I have published on this site that psychological experiences, especially when young, can actually alter the physical structure of the brain, as well as its neural connection (i.e. how the brain cells are interlinked) – this is because of a quality of the brain that psychologists call neuroplasticity (click here to read one of my articles about this phenomenon).
These physical changes in the brain, caused by psychological experience, can profoundly alter how the brain functions and also, therefore, how we think, feel and behave.
If, as a child, we suffered trauma and abuse as we were growing up, particularly in our earliest years, and, because of this, lived in a state of perpetual fear, the brain will have become shaped into constantly being on ‘red-alert’, trapping us into continually feeling fearful and hyper-sensitive in relation to threat, whether this threat be real or imagined. Indeed, if we have been conditioned in this manner by our childhood experiences, we are likely to be prone to imagining threats as well as being likely to severely over-react to mild ones ( eg we may be easily angered and more likely than the average person to become violent, rather like, to use a most unoriginal, but, I think, not inappropriate simile, a provoked and cornered animal).
Living in constant fear is psychologically extremely painful and distressing, as I know from my own experiences. Indeed, this pain can become so intolerable that, in the absence of therapy, the individual may be driven to attempt to self-medicate with alcohol or street drugs – this is known as dissociation, and there are many other forms of it, such as compulsive gambling and sex addiction (click here to read my article on this). Whilst not recommended, such behaviour is understandable when the alternative is to live in an agony of agitation, even terror, as if one were, imminently, going to become intimately acquainted with the world’s worst horrors.
Trauma and abuse, resulting in the child feeling unsafe in early life, can, potentially, have such a profound effect because, it this stage of incipient development the brain is highly malleable (i.e. easily shaped by environmental experience). As well as the possible adverse effects already described, when such a traumatised child becomes an adult s/he may also find:
– difficulties with connecting with others on an emotional level / problems forming and maintaining close relationships – an inability to feel pleasure (also known as anhedonia – click here to read my article on this).
Above: Often, the things we fear only ever exist within our own minds. We can waste an inordinate amount of mental energy in this manner, and cause ourselves enormous, needless, mental anguish.
This is because, in effect, the parts of the brain responsible for forming healthy relationships and for feeling pleasure have not been, as it were, sufficiently exercised during childhood; on the other hand, the parts of the brain (especially the amygdala) that give rise to feelings of fear have been over-exercised and are, therefore, overactive.
Children’s brains are much more vulnerable to the effects of stress and trauma than are the brains of adults (assuming the adults in question did not experience significant trauma growing up) because, by the time one’s an adult (to repeat, who has not had a traumatic childhood), the brain has had time to build up some resilience; however, in the case of the child, opportunities to develop such resilience have not, sadly, presented themselves.
For recovery from such effects of trauma (the brain’s neuroplasticity also means it can ‘heal’ itself), the individual, first and foremost, needs to feel secure and that s/he is in a safe environment. Additionally, therapies such as NEUROFEEDBACK can be beneficial, helping the individual to ‘rewire’ his/her brain.
Excitingly, too, recent research has shown (and this may surprise some) that yoga can actually help sufferers of the kind of difficulties described above more effectively than medication (disclaimer – this does not apply to everyone – only stop taking prescribed medication in consultation with an appropriately qualified and experienced professional). There is also strong evidence showing that the practice of ‘mindfulness’ can be very effective.
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Beat Fear And Anxiety Hypnosis Pack – click HERE for details.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).