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eBook about childhood trauma and the brain


Read the introduction below:

We now know the brain is not hard-wired but is continually changing its structure and interconnectivity. It is particularly changeable in early life which enables it to adapt to its environment. However, structural changes in the brain due to adverse childhood experiences can lead to potentially very serious mental health issues if these experiences are severe, ongoing, and/or repetitive.

When young our brains are extremely sensitive to the environment so that we can learn quickly and adapt. This is generally a good thing but it also means the young brain is also highly sensitive to negative environmental factors such as threat and other stressors that may come in the form of abuse, neglect, and/or domestic violence. The effect of adverse childhood experiences on the brain is what’s known as dose-effect related. In other words, the more childhood adverse experiences we encounter and the more severe and protracted or repeated they are, the greater the damage to the developing physical brain is likely to be.

If we are in a perpetual state of fear and stress during childhood our brains will adapt (i.e. change in terms of their structure and connectivity) to this horrible situation as a means of increasing our chances of survival (of course, we may not literally be in danger of being killed by our parents or primary caregivers but the unconscious workings of the mind don’t ‘know’ this). For example, the part of the brain that processes fear, called the amygdala, may become hyperactive, making us feel continually on edge, tense, and apprehensive as if we are stuck in a perpetual state of ‘red alert.’ Another part of the brain that may be affected is the prefrontal cortex which is involved in higher cognitive functions and the regulation of the amygdala (and other brain regions). The combination of these two brain regions being compromised is that it makes emotional control highly problematic. Indeed, the inability to effectively control emotions is a hallmark symptom of two disorders linked to childhood trauma: BPD and complex PTSD.

To take a simple example. Suppose we are in a crowd and see a face that looks like someone from our childhood we fear. Immediately, our amygdala will kick in and put us on red alert so that we might feel overwhelmed by fear and panic, our heart racing, and our breathing becoming shallow and rapid (the fight/flight response). We then realize we are mistaken and it is not the person we thought it was. At this point, in normal circumstances, our prefrontal cortex would send signals to the amygdala to calm us down. However, if its functionality has been impaired by a toxic ally stressful childhood, its effectiveness for doing this will be greatly diminished and, instead of gradually calming down we may experience a full-blown panic attack.

However, not all people who suffer traumatic childhoods will develop these problems as it is not only our environment that affects our brain development but also our innate temperament, our genes, our level of social support, and how we interpret what happens to us in our lives.

But what about those who are affected in this way? Are such problems reversible? Thankfully, the answer is yes. This is because remains physically changeable in terms of its structure and connectivity during adulthood and psychologists refer to this brain changeability as brain plasticity the various ways in which the brain can physically recover are addressed in the final chapter of this book.