Tag Archives: Childhood Trauma And The Brain

How Childhood Trauma Harms The Brain’s Insula

insula

WHAT IS THE BRAIN’S INSULA?

The insula is a small region of the brain’s cerebral cortex (see diagram below). Its precise function is not fully understood but it is hypothesized to play a significant role in :

  • generating our conscious self-awareness of our emotions.
  • interoceptive processing (this refers to degree to which we are paying attention to the sensory information generated by our bodies).
  • how the above 2 functions interact to generate our perception of the present moment.
  • pain
  • love
  • addiction

insula

STUDY ON HOW CHILDHOOD TRAUMA ADVERSELY AFFECTS THE INSULA :

A study conducted at the Stanford University School of Medicine involved 59 participants who were aged between 9- years-old and 17-years-old.

These 59 participants comprised 2 groups :

GROUP 1 (The Traumatized Group) : This group comprised 30 young people (16 males and 14 females).

Of these 30 participants, 5 had been exposed to one traumatic stressor in childhood, whilst the other 25 had been exposed to two or more traumatic stressors or to ongoing / chronic traumatic stress during childhood.

All 30 participants of this group had exhibited symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

GROUP 2 : (The Non-Traumatized Group) : This group was the ‘control’ group and comprised the remaining 29 particpants.

None of the 29 participants in this group exhibited symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

WHAT BRAIN SCANS REVEALED ABOUT THE PARTICIPANTS IN EACH OF THE TWO GROUPS :

The brains of all 59 participants were scanned using a technique known as structural magnetic resonance imaging (sMRI).

RESULTS :

In the NON-TRAUMATIZED GROUP (GROUP 2) there was found to be NO DIFFERENCE in the structure of the insulae when the males were compared to the females.

HOWEVER :

In the TRAUMATIZED GROUP (GROUP 1) there WAS FOUND TO BE A DIFFERENCE in the structure of the insulae when the males were compared to the females. The difference was as follows :

a) Boys in the TRAUMATIZED GROUP (GROUP 1) had insulae of a GREATER VOLUME AND SURFACE AREA than the boys in the NON-TRAUMATIZED GROUP (GROUP 2).

b) Girls in the TRAUMATIZED GROUP (GROUP 1) had insulae of a LESSER VOLUME AND SURFACE AREA than the girls in the NON-TRAUMATIZED GROUP (GROUP 2).

WHAT CAN WE CONCLUDE FROM THESE FINDINGS?

We are able to draw two main inferences based upon the above observations ; these are :

a) the experience of significant childhood trauma adversely affects the structural development of the insula.

b) the way in which  the experience of significant childhood trauma adversely affects the structural development of the insula.differs between boys and girls.

IMPLICATIONS FOR TREATMENT OF PTSD :

The above findings imply that because the effects of traumatic stress on the brain appear to differ between males and females, the type of treatment provided for individuals with PTSD need to take into account their sex.

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

 

Effects of Anxiety on How We Think, Feel, Communicate and Behave

childhood_trauma_questionnaire

We know that, if we have experienced significant childhood trauma, we are more likely, as adults, to experience various forms of mental illness than those who were fortunate enough to have had relatively stable and secure childhoods. One such condition we may develop due to our childhood difficulties is clinical anxiety and it is this condition that I wish to examine in this article.

Specifically, I want to look at how anxiety makes us think, feel, communicate and behave. So, let’s look at each of these in turn :

1) HOW ANXIETY MAKES US THINK :

– it is difficult to think clearly; it is like being enveloped by a mental fog or trying to think through treacle

– thinking becomes circular and repetitive – the same obsessive details regarding our problem go round and round in our mind, to absolutely no avail

– our thoughts become ‘stuck’ or ‘locked into’ our problem and we cease to make mental progress; thinking becomes futile and exhausting

– concentration on anything but our problem is impaired

– our sense of perspective becomes impaired; we are prevented from seeing the ‘bigger picture’

– we become mentally dominated by our problem, making it very hard to address other important aspects of our lives effectively as with have very little ‘mental energy’ to spare

– we become negative and pessimistic

– our confidence regarding other aspects of our lives is undermined

– we cannot view the problem we are obsessing about objectively or rationally

– we become focused on our short term survival, at the expense of our long-term interests (we may, for example, resort to drink and/or drugs in an attempt to gain some respite from our anguished psychological state – this is known as ‘DISSOCIATING’: click here to read my article on this)

2) HOW ANXIETY MAKES US FEEL :

– at best, being in a state of anxiety is unpleasant and painful, at worst it can lead to a profound sense of anguish and a feeling of being mentally tortured and tormented

– even simple tasks seem impossibly overwhelming (during my own protracted experience of extreme anxiety, I stopped brushing my teeth, rarely shaved and once, when my condition was at its worst, did not change any of my clothes for three months. I did not go out, except for cigarettes and alcohol, and survived by ordering in Indian takeaways. Looking back now, I’m surprised I survived the period)

– feelings of mistrust for others frequently develop; indeed, we might start to feel threatened by others, which, at the extreme end of the scale, can develop into clinical paranoia

– our senses can become accentuated so that being in bright light, or hearing loud noises, can feel like a physical assault (to this day, I much prefer overcast days to sunny ones)

– our ‘startle response’ becomes exaggerated so that the smallest of things, like a soft knock at the door or the phone ringing, can ‘make us jump’ or even terrify us

DIAGRAM TO SHOW HOW THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS CAN INTERACT AND FEED OFF ONE ANOTHER TO DEVELOP A VICIOUS CYCLE :

3) HOW ANXIETY AFFECTS HOW WE COMMUNICATE :

– language, like thinking, becomes circular and repetitive – we go over the same ground again and again.

– if people try to reassure us, we find reasons why we cannot be reassured

4) HOW ANXIETY MANIFESTS ITSELF IN OUR BEHAVIOUR :

-we feel stuck on ‘red alert’, constantly hypervigilant and expecting imminent disaster

– we may be unable to sit still, instead fidgeting nervously or pacing around the room

– alternatively, we may feel frozen by fear and sit motionless

– we may be highly irritable and quick to anger

– we may feel paralyzed by fear, almost completely unable to function and unable to cope with the smallest of life’s demands

– we may find it extremely hard to rest and impossible to relax

– sleep may be very badly affected – shallow, fitful, full of nightmares and unrefreshing (we may feel as tired after our so-called ‘sleep’ as we were just before we went to bed)

– high levels of stress and anxiety may also adversely affect our physical health, leading to, for example, palpitations, headaches, stomach problems, aches and pains. At the worst end of the spectrum, long-term and severe anxiety is thought to be linked to some forms of cancer, stroke, heart problems and high blood pressure

– we become scared of taking even very small risks, opting instead for safety and security; this can greatly restrict how we live our life and deprive us of many opportunities

RESOURCES:

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