How can trauma, caused by adverse childhood experiences, such as sexual, physical, emotional abuse, neglect or witnessing domestic violence, impact development?
Trauma is caused by a harmful and distressing event. It is the way a person psychologically and physically responds to that event, either immediately or a long time after it took place. Each person will experience and express trauma differently. Two people may respond differently to the same earthquake event, and that difference will depend on several factors, such as:
stage of life
Early on-set Trauma
Childhood is the time in life in when we are most active in terms of our development: millions of connections in the brain are happening at the same time with each new skill that is learnt, creating a healthy and well-adjusted adult. Different factors can impact on social, cognitive and affective development. Exposure to trauma in early childhood has proven, unless treated, to be related to long-term effects that may interfere in adult life.
How does it happen?
The brain and body are always learning. Like a sponge they absorb whatever is in their environment. In simple terms, if a child grows up surrounded by a healthy environment, violence-free and in stable and loving relationships with their caregivers – then that child will integrate that experience and their brain will be “wired” to interact and respond in that way. On the contrary, if a child grows up witnessing or experiencing domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, being neglected by their caregivers, etc, then the child’s brain will wire itself, as a protective measure, to interact and respond in that context.
When a person has a distressing experience and experiences the feelings that come with it, the part of the brain that “decides” how to respond is the frontal lobe. That part of the brain is not fully mature until the age of 21 years in women and around 25 years in men. Those 21 - 25 years are when a person learns healthy and appropriate, or unhealthy and inappropriate, ways of responding to the world.
When trauma happens, the brain shifts from the “learning mode” - which is constantly happening in the developmental years – to “survival mode”. If someone is constantly exposed to traumatic situations, the brain will “learn” to operate in survival mode.
Consequences of exposure to trauma in the early years
When a person is exposed to distressing situations for a long period of time – especially if the traumatic incident(s) took place during childhood and was never resolved - it is highly likely, they could present at some point in life with:
Learning difficulties: the brain learns how to process information in a dis-organised way which could impact on how the person will learn everything else, leading to poor outcomes at school
Behavioural issues: lack of impulse control, anger, suicidal behaviour, risk taking behaviour, self-harming, etc. there is also an increased risk of criminality
Mental health issues: depression, anxiety disorders, suicidal ideation, etc. In severe trauma it is possible to find dissociation, (an involuntary defensive response to deal with what is unbearable), to different degrees – from day-dreaming to block the traumatic episodes - that could reappear with triggers that remind someone of the trauma
Addiction: as a way of escaping and avoidance of reality. The person may abuse drugs (marijuana, cocaine, meth), prescription and non-prescription drugs (painkillers, anxiety medication), caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: In cases where someone has experienced multiple traumas or has been exposed long term to traumatic situations when they were children, then when they are faced with an experience that reminds them of even a fragment of the original traumatic experience, it will trigger the “fear mode” and the body will respond accordingly with accelerated heart rate, change in breathing patterns, impairment of judgement, feeling of terror, etc.
Difficulties in relationships: depending on the type and severity of the traumatic experience(s), the person may find it difficult to develop healthy relationships with others, including sexual relationship and non-sexual intimate relationships
Low appreciation of Self: Self-esteem, self-regulation and self-control are learnt in our early years. Experiencing trauma during those years, could lead to feelings of guilt, shame and self-blame, which will highly likely impact negatively, on the person’s identity.
What to do?
In the same way that the brain was impacted by the negative experiences from the past, it can be impacted and changed in the present, by positive experiences that will open the door to a healthier life. A trauma informed service, facilitated by a trauma-trained professional, will help the person to explore and heal trauma experiences – especially, the adverse childhood experiences and long-term exposure to distressing situations – in a safe and nurturing way.
Trauma – the consequences of it – can be healed even after many years have passed. With the support of trained and qualified professionals, (sometimes a multidisciplinary team), a person who experienced a distressing situation and was traumatised by it, can restore a sense of safety and well-being, develop the ability to engage in healthy relationships, improve their self-esteem and sense of self and live a fulfilled and joyful life.