traumatized brain

The human brain is uniquely complex. With a capacity for self-awareness, memory, consciousness, and empathy, the human brain sets us apart and allow us to rise above animal instinct. We are not born with all the ability needed to fully process the world around us. Rather, it takes years of development for the billions of cells in our brain to grow, form connections and establishes patterns — this is how we learn to communicate, to live as part of society, to build a personality and to hone skills and talents. Our formative years of childhood are essential in determining who we are as adults. Ideally, this time of growth is marked by nurturing experiences at home and in school — encouragement, good examples and positive stimuli that create strong, healthy pathways in the brain. The behavior patterns and emotional responses that emerge during this time become a common thread throughout our lives.

According to the National Survey of Children’s Health, however, a high percentage — about 45% — of children under the age of 17 have experienced one or more adverse or traumatic events such as poverty, racism, divorce, domestic abuse, violence or the loss of a parent or guardian. The same survey suggests that approximately 20% of children under 17 experienced two or more such adverse events. At any stage of development — even in fully developed adulthood — the brain can have difficulty processing these adverse events.

From a neurological standpoint, the hallmark of trauma is a disruption in brain function: over- or under-production of the chemicals that the brain uses to communicate, or changes in activity in sections of the brain that respond to certain stimuli. These changes, particularly at vital stages of brain development in childhood, can have effects that last long beyond the event itself and into adulthood if left unaddressed.

Trauma and Brain Development

Current scientific understanding suggests that most brain development occurs between infancy and the age of five, and continues at a slower rate through childhood, teen years and early adulthood. At birth, the brain contains about 100 billion interconnected cells. Each cell forms thousands of connections, called synapses, with other brain cells. An infant’s brain has approximately 2,500 synapses per neuron. New synapses are created every time a child experiences a new sensation or processes a new stimulus: over the first three years of a child’s life, those original synapses multiply to nearly 15,000 per neuron. At this point, the brain begins to eliminate lesser-used or dormant synapses and strengthen the ones that are used frequently. The strongest synapses persist into adulthood after the brain stabilizes around the age of 25. While the brain is always changeable and adaptable, it becomes more difficult to significantly alter brain pathways after this stabilization occurs.

Whatever emotions, reactions, stimuli or experiences a child feels or has on a regular basis will become the foundation of their brain function for the rest of their life. When trauma occurs during childhood, two issues with brain development arise. First, the growing and strengthening synapses may form in areas of the brain that process negative responses like anxiety, fear or anger. Second, when these traumatic experiences remain unaddressed through the rest of brain development, they become cemented in the brain’s pathways and can lead to mental health concerns later in life such as anxiety and panic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders or mood disorders.

Transcending beyond the mere mechanics of brain science, trauma impacts more than synapses. Trauma which occurs in youth, as well as at any other stage of life, imprints itself in the nervous system, the body as a whole, the mind as a whole, and the spirit as a whole as well. Becoming a foundation for dysfunction means that trauma radically alters the way children, and the adults that children become, are able to live their lives.

Hormones and Mental Health

Communication across synapses or between the brain and body happens due to two essential types of chemicals: neurotransmitters and hormones. Your body produces these two substances — neurotransmitters in the brain, and hormones by the glands — to regulate everything from mood to heart rate. Neurotransmitters dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin, while hormones include oxytocin, cortisol, and insulin, among others in each category. Serotonin, for example, is connected to mood and sleep patterns — low levels are linked to depression and insomnia. Oxytocin, often called the “cuddle hormone,” is responsible for those “warm and fuzzy” feelings which help us feel closer to others, encourages socialization and regulates stress.

Traumatic experiences suffered in childhood can alter the production of neurotransmitters and hormones. Recent studies have shown, for example, that people who specifically experience childhood abuse or neglect can suffer from thwarted neurotransmitter development. Underdeveloped oxytocin pathways were discovered, which greatly affects the ability to feel loved, positivity, happiness, and closeness to others. Low levels of serotonin were also found, which can lead to depression. Dopamine receptors which weren’t properly formed were also found, which dramatically changes the way someone would experience pleasure and happiness. All of these inhibitive changes to neurotransmitter production can lead to mood disorders, inability to regulate stress, and an overactive sympathetic nervous system.

Treating Childhood Trauma 

Tragically, symptoms of childhood trauma frequently go unidentified or treated. Even when cases are identified, the child or teen is unlikely to receive any treatment or help. Diagnosing traumatic responses in children can be incredibly difficult, particularly when the child is too young to express their experience in a way that adults can understand. Grown adults, who are inhibited in their ability to effectively identify, cope with, and regulate their emotions can hardly understand how their trauma has affected them, as well. Adults will live with addictions and mental health issues for years, desperately trying to find an answer, without realizing that trauma treatment is the solution they are looking for.

Stigmas against mental health and a lack of awareness about the prevalence of childhood trauma are major roadblocks to preventing trauma from taking root in the developing brain. At The Guest House Ocala, we want to spread awareness and educate people about their options for mental health treatment. We want those who have experienced childhood trauma to know that they are not alone, that living through trauma at an early age can have lasting effects and that there is no shame in asking for help even many years later in adulthood. We know it is possible to heal from trauma, no matter when it happened, what form it takes or how it has affected you. We encourage you to reach out for help — please don’t hesitate to contact us with questions about our trauma treatment programs or to learn more about trauma resources near you. Call us at 855-483-7800.