Childhood and the Traumatized Brain
Content reviewed by Karen Rubenstein, LMFT, Chief Clinical Officer at Cliffside Malibu
Childhood experiences can play a significant role in how an individual navigates through life in adulthood. This includes childhood trauma, which can have lasting effects well into adulthood. Trauma can take a psychological toll on anyone, especially on young brains that have not fully developed.
Untreated or unhealed trauma can lead to a person finding harmful ways to cope with past pain, such as substance use. Finding the right treatment programs can provide relief from past trauma that is still affecting the present.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is a person’s emotional response to an event or experience that caused emotional distress at some point in their life. This could be through a single event or repeated exposure to a traumatic situation or relationship. What someone considers trauma may vary, but it must compromise the safety of a person’s well-being.
Experiences that can be traumatic include:
- Natural disaster
- Sexual, physical, verbal or emotional abuse
- Childhood neglect or family separation
- Sexual assault
- Witnessing family members struggle with addiction
- Sudden death or loss of parents
- Witnessing the death of a loved one
- Military combat
Trauma can occur at any age, but it has a more profound impact during childhood. The type of trauma experienced also has a lasting impact on the brain.
Types of Trauma
When two people experience the same form of trauma, their responses may be completely different. In addition, there are different forms of trauma a person can experience.
Trauma that has been triggered by a single event is called acute trauma. An example would be a mass shooting, car accident or sexual assault. Researchers have found that acute trauma can lead to the development of PTSD or raise the risk of adverse psychological effects.
Chronic trauma occurs when a person is exposed to repeated traumatic events. This form of trauma is more common for children to experience early in life through situations like household or parental conflicts and homelessness or poverty. Other common forms of chronic trauma include domestic abuse, war or combat, chronic illness, persistent bullying or neglect.
Complex trauma happens when a person experiences repeated trauma with no end or no means of escape. These events are severe and often result in abuse or neglect that can be detrimental to the child’s psyche.
The Effects of Trauma on the Brain
The brain is one of the most complex and powerful human organs. Day-to-day life experiences impact the brain as a whole as well as specific parts. The amygdala is a core portion of the nervous system associated with processing threatening stimuli and fearful memories. When a person experiences a traumatic event, adrenaline rushes through the body and can over-activate the amygdala. The intensity of emotions is instilled in the amygdala, meaning the memory of the event is imprinted on the brain. It stores sensory input surrounding events in our lives, including trauma. Later in life, many things can trigger memories of these traumatic events, including smells, visuals, sounds, touch or tastes.
People who experience extremely traumatic events or long-term trauma may develop symptoms of emotional disturbances, including PTSD, depression, anhedonia, disassociation, anger or heightened anxiety. As a result, these people may live on constant alert because of the fear that past trauma has created. To live a healthy and fully functioning lifestyle, seeking help from professionals is vital to healing trauma.
Treatment options are available for those who have experienced trauma or have developed PTSD, a mental health and anxiety disorder. Short or long-term psychotherapy typically works best for people with PTSD. Being able to speak openly with a therapist promotes a healthy evaluation of feelings associated with the trauma in a safe space. Additionally, PTSD often co-occurs with substance use as a way of coping with the uncomfortable feelings of trauma. A therapist can help identify alternative coping strategies and aid in developing practical and lifelong skills.
Medications are another way to treat PTSD. Typical medications used for PTSD tackle the fear and anxiety created by out-of-sync neurotransmitters. Since people experience symptoms associated with their trauma differently, various forms of medications may be prescribed based on the needs of the individual. PTSD often coincides with co-occurring mental disorders that may require their own form of treatment. For example, some people who experience nightmares of past traumatic events may need medications such as prazosin, which is explicitly prescribed for night terrors. Other forms of medication include:
- Sleep aides
Cliffside Malibu seeks to find the root cause of addiction, which may include past or recent trauma. We offer clinically proven treatment options in a private, luxurious setting optimal for healing and recovery. Trauma is treatable, and we have the experienced staff and resources to help you discover your own power of healing. Call Cliffside Malibu today to discuss treatment options for overcoming past and recent trauma at (855) 403-5641.