Tag Archives: Amygdala

Trauma And Memory

In this article, I want to focus on the potential adverse affects of trauma on memory, and, in particular, four types of memory :

  • episodic memory
  • semantic memory
  • procedural memory
  • emotional memory

I briefly explain the function of these four types of memory below :

EPISODIC MEMORY : Our episodic memory stores our unique memories of specific events.

SEMANTIC MEMORY : Our semantic memory stores concepts, facts, ideas and meanings relating to the world in general / general knowledge.

PROCEDURAL MEMORY : Our procedural memory stores information about how to carry out ‘procedures’ that underlie motor, cognitive and visuospatial skills such as walking, swimming and driving, that have become ‘second nature’ and can be performed automatically.

EMOTIONAL MEMORY : Emotional memory stores information relating to how we felt / the emotions we experienced at the time of a particular event.

 

A SIMPLE EXAMPLE THAT HELPS TO EXPLAIN THESE FOUR TYPES OF MEMORY :

If an individual was involved in a car accident, the four types of memory the person has of the event might be as follows :

EPISODIC MEMORY : The memory of who else was in the car at the time of the crash and what was playing on the radio.

SEMANTIC MEMORY : The memory of what a car is.

PROCEDURAL MEMORY : The memory of how to drive a car (assuming the person has been driving for a long time and is not new to it).

EMOTIONAL MEMORY : The fear felt the next time the person drives the car (the car triggers the fear-response associated with the crash which has been stored in memory).

 

How Can Trauma Adversely Affect These Four Types Of Memory?

EPISODIC MEMORY : Trauma can cause the part of the brain which forms and indexes episodic memories, known as the hippocampus) to ‘go off-line’ temporarily or may impair its normal functioning in such a way that the episodic memory of the traumatic event formed is fragmented, incohesive, and not properly processed. Because of this, fragments of memories that were formed when the traumatic event occurred may intrude on the mind in the form of flashbacks and nightmares after the traumatic event is over for as long as this incomplete processing persists (which, in the absence of therapy and in the most serious cases, may be for a life-time).

SEMANTIC MEMORY : Trauma can prevent information from different brain regions integrating in a meaningful way thus impairing the person’s ability to form semantic memories – this, in turn, can lead to learning difficulties. Semantic memories are generated in a region of the brain known as the anterior temporal lobe.

PROCEDURAL MEMORY : Trauma can adversely affect our memory of how to carry our procedures / activities. Continuing with the ‘car accident’ example, the next time we drive a car our muscles may become tense so that our driving is less smooth than before the accident and we find, too, that we are thinking more than normal about simple procedures like changing gear and using the indicator (whereas, pre-accident’, such procedures would have been undertaken ‘automatically’ / without conscious deliberation. The main regions of the brain involved in the operation of procedural memory are the prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex and cerebellum.

EMOTIONAL MEMORY : The next time we sit behind the wheel after the accident, we may feel flooded with fear. The region of the brain involved in learning and forming  fear memories is known as the amygdala.

 

RELATED POSTS :

TYPES OF DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA IN COMPLEX PTSD

FIVE TYPES OF AMNESIA LINKED TO CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

CHILDHOOD TRAUMA AND MEMORY – WHY SOME REMEMBER AND OTHERS FORGET.

CAN ‘BURIED MEMORIES’ BE UNCOVERED BY HYPNOSIS?

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

The Neurological Potential For Psychological Turmoil During Adolescence.

brain changes in adolescence

For many, adolescence is a very difficult and stressful time, not least because of the neurological and interacting hormonal changes that occur during the period.

Changes In The Brain :

Between the ages of about ten and early adulthood, the brain undergoes three major periods of dramatic physical development as described below :

  • Between the ages of 10 years and 12 years : during this period there occurs a massive increase in neurons (a neuron is a brain cell that receives, processes and transmits information via chemical and electrical signals) and synapses (connections between neurons) in the brain’s FRONTAL CORTEX (the brain’s frontal cortex is involved in reasoning, higher level thinking, decision making, logic, judgment, impulse control, emotional control and planning). However, it is important to note that the FRONTAL CORTEX does not become fully developed until the early to mid-twenties (Kotulak).
  • Between the ages of 13 years and 15 years : during this period there are qualitative changes in nerve pathways which allow the ability to perform abstract thinking to develop.
  • From the age of 17 years upwards : continued development of the brain’s frontal lobes increase the individual’s ability to plan and think logically.

Lack of impulse control, poor judgment, poor planning and illogical thinking can, of course, lead to the kind of dangerous, impulsive risk-taking behavior often seen in adolescents ; such behavior is also exacerbated by the fact that the adolescent brain is wired up in such a way that the teenager is highly stimulated to seek out novel experiences / indulge in experimental behavior.

The Adolescent Brain And Emotional Lability :

It is also important to note that during adolescence a region of the brain known as the AMYGDALA (which plays a very large part in the individual’s emotional experiences) is HIGHLY ACTIVE ; this frequently has the effect of causing the adolescent’s behavior to be substantially dictated by volatile and dramatically fluctuating emotions which may contribute to tensions in the home and/or conflict with peers.

Hormonal Changes :

Brain development is influenced by hormone production and, during adolescence, copious amounts of sex hormones, growth hormones, adrenal stress hormones and (in males) testosterone are produced.

Furthermore, studies suggest that, due to the relative immaturity of the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the mid-brain reward system, teenagers are more prone to becoming addicted to drugs (including nicotine). Also, this underdeveloped neuronal link between the prefrontal cortex and the mid-brain reward system may help to explain why some adolescents develop especially intense, dramatic and volatile romantic attachments during their teenage years.

Another effect of hormonal changes is that the adolescent’s diurnal rhythm (pattern of behavior that follows day-night / 24 hour cycles) is altered. This is why many teenagers inadvertently antagonize their parents (especially those parents who are as yet unacquainted with knowledge pertaining to adolescent diurnal rhythms) by staying up very late and then getting up very late.

Finally, because the level of testosterone produced by boys increases by 1000 per cent after puberty this dramatic elevation in quantity of the hormone in the body can potentially increase the young person’s propensity for violence which can, in turn, lead to involvement in schoolyard fights or worse.

And, of course, if, too, the adolescent has experienced significant childhood trauma, all of the above potential problems may become dramatically intensified.

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

 

 

 

 

Effect Of Childhood Trauma On The Limbic System

Limbic system

If we have suffered severe and chronic childhood trauma, there is a risk that an area of our brain called the limbic system may have incurred developmental damage which severely affects how we feel and behave as adults.

What Is The Limbic System’s Normal Function?

The limbic system is a region of our brain that experiences emotional reactions to information relayed by our five senses : taste, touch, vision, smell and hearing. These emotional reactions are strongly shaped by the memories stored in the limbic system connected to past experiences associated with these senses.

To provide a simple example : if our ancestors heard the roar of a lion behind them, because this sound is associated (from past experience) in the limbic system with danger, they would react with fear and run away. This function of the limbic system clearly has survival value, which is why modern day humans have inherited it.

Components Of The Limbic System:

The limbic system comprises :

– the amygdala

– the hippocampus

– mammillary body

– hypothalamus

– olfactory cortex

– thalamus

– cingulate gyrus

– fornix

The positioning in the brain of the above regions is shown in the diagram below:

 

How Can The Experience Of Childhood Trauma Cause The Limbic System To Become Dysfunctional?

If as children, our limbic system was repeatedly activated by threatening and frightening experiences then its development may have been disrupted. This may mean that it becomes HYPERSENSITIVE to perceived threat AND OVER- REACTIVE to perceived threat.

Importantly, the limbic system may cause us to OVER-REACT TO PERCEIVED THREATS THAT WE ONLY PERCEIVE ON AN UNCONSCIOUS LEVEL. For example, if someone in authority speaks to us in a manner that, on an unconscious level, reminds us of how an abusive parent used to speak to us, we might become extremely anxious, frightened or aggressive (aggression here would represent an unconscious drive to defend ourselves).

Theoretical Reversibility:

However, because of a quality of the brain known as neuroplasticity, this disrupted part of the brain can begin to heal itself through factors including the

 

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

 

 

Three Critical Brain Regions Harmed By Childhood Trauma

Three critical brain regions that may be adversely affected by significant and chronic childhood trauma are :

1) The thalamus

2) The amygdala

3) The hippocampus

Below, I will briefly describe the main functions of each of these three crucial regions of the brain, together with providing a summary of the damage they may sustain to their development due early adverse experiences.

1) Possible Adverse Effects Of Childhood Trauma On The Development Of The Thalamus :

The thalamus is the part of the brain that assesses all incoming sensory data (ie. information from sound, vision, touch,  smell and taste) and then sends this information on to the appropriate, higher region of the brain for further analysis.

If a child constantly experiences trauma (for example, by frequently witnessing domestic violence perpetrated by a drunken father) the child’s thalamus can become so overwhelmed by the intensity and quantity of sense data it needs to process that it is no longer able to process it properly.

This can lead to the child’s memories of trauma becoming very fragmented.

Another effect of the thalamus being overloaded with traumatic sensory data is to shut down the cortex, resulting in impairment of rational thinking processes. Also, due to the shutting down of the cortex, many of the traumatic experiences are stored without awareness (so that they become unconscious memories).

 

Above : diagram showing the position of the thalamus, amygdala and hippocampus (together with other brain regions).

 

2) Possible Adverse Effects Of Childhood Trauma On The Development Of The Amygdala :

The amygdala is the brain region that responds to fear, threat and danger.

If a child experiences frequent fear due to childhood abuse the amygdala becomes overwhelmed by the need to process too much information. This can damage it in two main ways :

a) the amygdala becomes overactive and remains constantly ‘stuck on red alert’, leading the individual feeling constantly anxious and fearful, even at times when there is no need to feel this way, objectively speaking. An oversensitive amygdala is also thought to be a major feature of borderline personality disorder (BPD) is a serious psychiatric condition.

b) the amygdala shuts down as a way of protecting the individual from intolerable feelings of being in danger, which can have the effect of leaving the him/her feeling numb, empty, emotionally dead and dissociated.

3)  Possible Adverse Effects Of Childhood Trauma On The Development Of The Hippocampus:

The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for long-term storage of memories. If trauma is severe, the consequential production by the body of stress hormones can have a toxic effect upon this brain area, reducing its capacity by as much as 25℅.

Above eBook now available from Amazon for instant download. Click here

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

Brain Areas That May Be Adversely Affected By Childhood Trauma

BPD_and_brain_areas

If we have been unfortunate enough to have been subjected to severe and chronic childhood trauma, it is possible that this adversely affected how our brain physically developed during our early life.

And, if we have been particularly unlucky, this disrupted brain development could have made us highly susceptible to developing borderline personality disorder (BPD) in our adult lives.

 

Indeed, research involving brain scans suggest that sufferers of BPD can have abnormalities in the following brain areas :

– prefrontal cortex

– anterior cingulate

– medial frontal cortex

– subgenual cingulate

– ventral striatum

– ventromedial prefrontal cortex

– amygdala

 

What Are These Brain Areas Associated With?

The function of these brain areas are described below:

PREFRONTAL CORTEX:

– decision making

– conscious control of social behaviour

– speech / writing

– logic

– purposeful (as opposed to instinctual) behaviour

– planning for the future

– expression of the personality

ANTERIOR CINGULATE :

– decision making

– heart rate

– blood pressure

– impulse control

– emotions

MEDIAL PREFRONTAL CORTEX:

– decision making

– memory

SUBGENUAL CINGULATE :

– sleep

– appetite

– anxiety

– mood

– memory

– self esteem

– transporting serotonin

– our experience of depression

VENTRAL STRIATUM :

– decision making

– emotional regulation (the control of emotios)

– the extinction of conditioned responses

AMYGDALA :

– appetite

– emotion

– emotional content of memories

– fear

The Effects Of Disruption Of The Above Brain Areas :

Poor decision making ; poor control of social behaviour ; impaired ability to think rationally ; poor planning for the future ; dysfunctional personality ; increased physiological response to stress ; poor impulse control ; poor emotional control ; insomnia ; changes in appetite ; severe anxiety ; mood instability ; low self-esteem ; impairment of the brain’s ability to make effective use of serotonin leading to clinical depression ; changes in appetite ; emotionally charged memories leading to flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive thoughts, panic attacks ; feelings of being under constant threat, fear, terror and extreme vulnerability.

OTHER ARTICLES ABOUT CHILDHOOD TRAUMA AND THE BRAIN :

 

eBook :

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Above eBook now available for instant download from Amazon. Click here for more details.

 

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

3 Types Of Emotional Control Difficulties Resulting From Childhood Trauma

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.

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). Click here to read my article on this.

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 over- reactions:

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 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.

Above ebook now available on Amazon for instant download. Click here.

Other Resources:

Control Your Emotions (hypnosis MP3 download). Click here for details.

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

Possible Life-Long Effects Of Toxic Stress On The Child.

We have been programmed by evolution to have physical responses to perceived dangers and threats. These evolved to prepare our ancestors for ‘fight or flight’, when, for example, they were being stalked by a predator. The bodily responses we experience when we feel endangered and threatened include:

– an increased heart rate

– an increase in blood pressure

– an increase in the amount of stress hormones (such as cortisol) in our blood stream.

If a child experiences severe and chronic (ie. long-lasting) stress and has no emotional support (or poor and inadequate emotional support) to help him/her to cope with the stress and to buffer its effects then it can result in the actual architecture of the brain being damaged (the young brain is particularly sensitive and susceptible to the adverse effects of stress – psychologists call this sensitivity and susceptibility to architectural/physical change as the result of experience plasticity).

For example, a child may be emotionally abused by the mother over a num aber of years with no adequate support from the father (perhaps due to divorce from the mother, which was my own situation), older siblings (indeed, they may even join in the abuse), school, wider family or wider society.

The Three Types Of Stress Response:

download

 

1) Positive stress response:

This is a functional, normal, non-damaging type of stress, causing an only mild physiological response. An example might be a child’s first day at school. It is actually helpful to the child to experience such mild forms of stress and learn that s/he can cope with it as it helps to prepare him/her for adult life.

2) Tolerable stress response :

Here the stress experienced is more severe and/or long-lasting. The corresponding physiological response is therefore greater but still do no long-term damage as long as the child receives sufficient emotional support.

3) Toxic stress response:

Here the stress experienced is severe, long-lasting and frequent. Examples include:

– physical/emotional abuse

– neglect

maternal depression

– lack of adequate stimulation due to poverty

– living in a household where there is domestic violence

– living in a household where there is alcoholism/drug abuse

parental mental illness

The effects of toxic stress on the young mind can be life-long. Physical effects on the brain may include:

– disruption of brain circuitry

– anatomical changes

– physiological dysregulation

– damage to the brain structure called the amygdala

– damage to the brain structure called the hippocampus

– damage to the brain structure called the prefrontal cortex

Above: We can see here how severe neglect has physically affected the brain.

 

Adverse effects resulting from the above may include:

– poor mood control

– high, chronic anxiety

severely reduced capability to cope with stress

– severe reduction in socio-emotional skills

– excessive drinking in an attempt to reduce anxiety

– excessive smoking in an attempt to reduce anxiety

– unemployment

– poor academic achievement

– gang membership

– prison

– poverty

– homelessness

highly unstable and volatile interpersonal relationships

– unhealthy lifestyle leading to physical illnesses

– greater proneness to some medical conditions even in the absence of an unhealthy lifestyle

Conclusion

Toxic stress is a prevalent and very serious threat to young people’s welfare. Its adverse effects can be devastating, and, without appropriate therapy, last a lifetime.

It is therefore vital to identify individuals at risk as early as possible and to develop more effective therapeutic interventions. The earlier effective intervention occurs, the less likely the damage done to the young person will be irrevocable.

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

Above ebook now available on Amazon for immediate download. Click here for further details.

Other Resources:

Complete Stress Management Pack (downloadable MP3). Click here for details.

Brains Of Children Exposed To Domestic Violence Affected In Similar Way To Exposure To Combat

effects_of_domestic_violence_on_children's_brains

A study carried out at University College London (UCL) has found that when a child is continually exposed to domestic violence, such as the father regularly beating the mother, their brains are negatively affected in a similar way to how the brains of soldiers are affected by exposure to combat in war.

As a result, the children’s brains may become HYPERSENSITIVE TO PERCEIVED THREAT, or, to put it informally, ‘stuck on red alert.’  This, in turn, may lead to the child becoming trapped in a distressing state of hypervigilance and extreme wariness/distrust of others.

 

The research study which discovered this entailed children being shown pictures of angry/threatening faces whilst undergoing a brain scan and from this it was found that their emotional response to these faces was far more intense than was the emotional response of another group of children who were from stable backgrounds (known as the ‘control group’) who underwent the same procedure.

Specifically, the brain scans revealed that the children who had been exposed to domestic violence showed unusually high activity levels in two parts of the brain when shown the pictures of the angry/threatening faces, namely: 1) The anterior insula and 2) The amygdala, when compared to the children shown exactly the same pictures but whom had had a stable, loving and protected childhood.

 

Similarity to effect of exposure to combat on the brain:

Such increased activity in these two brain regions has also been found to occur, from previous research, in the brains of soldiers who have experienced protracted exposure to armed conflict.

Short-term benefits but long-term losses:

One of the psychological researchers involved in the UCL study pointed out that this changed brain activity may be helpful to children who live in homes where there is domestic violence in the short-term by helping them to avoid danger.

However, in the long-term, the changes may cause the individual severe problems – for example, as an adult the individual may constantly overestimate the degree of danger that other people present to him/ her. In turn, this may lead that same individual to be prone to becoming disproportionately aggressive towards those s/he perceives to be a threat to him/her.

The individual, too, may perceive threats where they, in reality, do not exist due to his/ her constant wariness of others together with a pervasive sense of paranoia.

Resilience:

The researchers involved in this study also drew our attention to the fact that not all children who are exposed to domestic violence develop the kind of mental disturbance described above and that more research needs to be conducted in order to ascertain which factors contribute to this resilience.

Anxiety and depression:

Research also shows that children exposed to domestic violence are at significantly increased risk of developing anxiety and depression (click here to read my article on this); indeed, both the anterior insula and the amygdala play a prominent role in the generation of anxiety disorders.

child_trauma_and_NEUROPLASTICITY, functional_and_structural_ neuroplasticity

Above eBook, How Childhood Trauma Can Physically Damage The Developing Brain, now available on Amazon for immediate download. Click here.

(Other titles available).

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

 

Borderline Personality Disorder – The Role of Childhood Trauma and Other Factors

childhood-trauma-fact-sheet

Biological Factors :

Several of my articles have already examined, in some detail, environmental factors in childhood which put the individual at risk of developing borderline personality disorder (BPD) as an adult (however, for those of you who are not familiar with them, I will summarize them at the end of this article).

Before I do that, however, I wish to look at other factors which research suggests may be linked to the development, in adulthood, of BPD. These are :

Neurotransmitters

– Neurobiology

– Genetics

NEUROTRANSMITTERS : Neurotransmitters are chemicals which exist in the brain and have the function of sending messages between neurons (brain cells). In individuals with BPD, research has shown that three groups of neurotransmitters, in particular, have often been disrupted; these are :

a) SEROTONIN : this neurotransmitter is linked to destructive urges, aggressive behavior and depression

b) DOPAMINE : this neurotransmitter is linked to emotional lability (instability)

c) NORADRENALINE : as above

NB It should be noted that these neurotransmitters may well have been adversely affected as a result of childhood trauma (click here for an explanation as to how this may occur)

images      images2

Above : 2 visual representations of neurotransmitters.

 

NEUROBIOLOGY : Brain scan technology has revealed that those who suffer from BPD frequently have brain abnormalities relating to both the brain’s structure and its functioning. Three parts of the brain, in particular, are frequently found to have been damaged ; these are :

a) THE HIPPOCAMPUS : this brain region is involved in regulating our behavior (self-control)

b) ORBITOFRONTAL CORTEX : this brain region is involved in decision making skills and planning

c) AMYGDALA : this brain region is involved in regulating (controlling) our behavior, especially anger, aggression, violent impulses, fear and anxiety

The idea has been put forward that the damage to these brain regions, and the consequent emotional and behavioral problems, go quite some considerable way to explaining why it is that those who suffer from BPD so frequently have very significant difficulties in forming stable relationships.

NB. Again, it seems these brain regions have been damaged in BPD sufferers when their brains were still developing and, therefore,highly vulnerable during childhood as a result of their traumatic experiences. The good news is, however, that such damage seems to be, at least in part, reversible (click here to read my article on this)

GENETICS :

There is no evidence that there is a specific gene relating to the development of BPD. However, it has been suggested that certain personality traits (characteristics) might have been inherited from parents which put the individual at greater risk of developing BPD ; these include a propensity towards aggression and emotional instability. Presently, however, this is merely a hypothesis.

 

TRAUMATIC CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES:

FINALLY, AS PROMISED, I WILL SUMMARIZE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES WHICH MAKE IT MORE LIKELY AN INDIVIDUAL WILL DEVELOP BPD ; THESE ARE :

dysfunctional relationships with parent/s

– growing up in a household in which a member has significant problems relating to drugs and/or alcohol

– growing up in a household in which a member suffers from a serious psychiatric illness

– abuse (physical/emotional/sexual)

neglect by parent/s

– growing up in an environment which involves living in a frequently occurring or chronic state of fear/anxiety/distress

For more on this, click here.

 

N.B.  The risk of development of BPD as an adult is significantly increased if psychological issues relating to the above have not been addressed/resolved through therapy and, especially, if others (particularly the perpetrators) try to undermine, invalidate and/or discredit one’s perception of the impact one’s overwhelmingly stressful childhood experiences have had on one.

 

eBooks:

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The above eBooks are now available for immediate download on Amazon. Click here for further details.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

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