Childhood abuse is one of the most horrific and traumatizing events a human being can endure in life. There are endless books about trauma, what it is, and how to help survivors as they grow into adults. In recent years, abuse has been exposed in the media and the news. Society is more aware of trauma. More research has been carried out to understand how the brain is altered in a child that is traumatized vs a child who is growing up in a loving and supporting home. I find this research really interesting in helping me understand how I behaved as a traumatized child vs how my friends behaved. I’m a survivor living with CPTSD. I always felt different on the outside. No one could really understand me because I reacted differently from my peers. I felt like I was on the outside looking in and never really belong. Have you ever wondered why you were different from your friends growing up? Why didn’t they get shocked at loud noises and freak out at certain events and triggers?
It has been proven that childhood trauma does impair the development and functionality of the brain. If the trauma is severe, it can go as far as impairing speech, so the child has no words to verbalize their traumatic experiences. They have lost the ability to speak whilst the trauma is going on! Hang on, what!? So that is why a traumatized child can never explain what is going on! They actually can’t!
The damaged brain after trauma
Parts of the Prefrontal Cortex in the brain can be damaged by prolonged childhood trauma which reduces the brain’s ability to inhibit survival responses to triggers that are not threatening. This is what is called a fight/flight or freeze state. Being in this survival state can have a big effect on how a child behaves. A child can misunderstand neutral facial expressions as threatening and hostile voices can totally freak them out. A traumatized child can anticipate less pleasure in completing tasks and achieving goals. (“I’m no good at this”, “I can’t do it”)
A traumatized child has an increased level of Cortisol in the body. Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone, and it is a bit like your very own alarm system. It is produced in the adrenal gland. Cortisol works with parts of the brain to control your mood, motivation, and fear. Once the stress has gone, the cortisol levels would normally reduce in the body, but it doesn’t work like that in a traumatized child who is constantly stressed. The increased level of Cortisol can affect the hippocampus part of the brain. The Hippocampus is the part of the limbic system in the brain which is responsible for regulating emotions, learning, and memory. If the Hippocampus is affected by trauma, it can lead to a child finding it difficult to pay attention in class and learn new skills. The ability to solve problems and think logically about things is another area that is affected. One of the most important areas that are affected is the child’s ability to self-soothe and reflect on actions. It means that when something happens, it can take a very long time for the child to calm down. Their heartbeat stays elevated and not in control, long after the actual danger has passed. Therefore, the trauma carries on in the form of inconsolable crying, temper tantrums, screaming, and hyperactivity.
If you have suffered from severe and prolonged trauma, the prefrontal cortex in the brain may not physically develop to its normal size. The prefrontal cortex part of the brain is responsible for functions like coordinating and adjusting behavior, controlling impulses, and the organization of emotional reactions. An adult who has survived severe and prolonged trauma could have a smaller volume of this part of the brain than an adult who has not lived through trauma. This leads to the survivor growing up to be hypersensitive, unable to calm down easily after being triggered and regulating emotions. The survivor also often lives with high levels of fear and anxiety. I recognise all of these traits in myself as a survivor of CPTSD and it really explains why I am the way I am. Yes, I have been through so much in life and this is my body reacting to that. I am not sick, I am a survivor.
So how does the brain respond to trauma in a child?
To understand how trauma affects a developing brain, we must first understand what the parts actually do. The brain controls everything that we do and keeps us alive but the main parts of the brain that affect trauma are those responsible for the generation of our reaction that we have to information by our senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste.) The brain has a part called the “Limbic system”. It is the part of our brain that is responsible for our emotional reaction to memories stored in the limbic system by our senses. The Limbic system is made up of three main parts called the Amygdala, the Hippocampus, and the Thalamus.
The Amygdala is responsible for fear, threat, and danger. It is the storage of the emotional parts of our memories. Trauma sends the Amygdala into overdrive and makes it overactive. The child becomes stuck on full alert and that causes fear and anxiety to remain. It makes the body shut down and the child feels, numb, empty, and dissociated. The child lives in what people call a “brain/mind fog which leads to a child feeling constantly exhausted “for no reason”. They become tongue-tied and find it difficult to speak. When the Amygdala does go into what’s called a “Hijack” it causes an intense emotional response when under stress. The child has no control over his / her emotions. This is called emotional dysregulation. The Amygdala has taken over the brain and all other functions. It causes an intense emotional reaction; it is sudden and takes a long time to calm down.
The Hippocampus like I mentioned earlier is the part of the brain that is responsible for the long-term storage of memories. It is underdeveloped in size for a trauma survivor.
The Thalamus is the part of the Limbic system that assesses all incoming sensory data and then sends them on to the appropriate higher region of the brain for analysis. In a traumatized child this will lead to memories being fragmented, and overloaded, and eliminates the reasoning part of the brain. The memories are stored without awareness and so they become “unconscious” memories.
Traumatic experiences cause physical damage to the brain. A traumatized person feels a lack of emotional security. They often develop an avoidant attachment style of living, avoiding interactions altogether because they cause too much anger and aggression. They feel rejected by society because they have learned a defensive response to life. They feel trapped by the abuser and the whole world feels hostile. Early attachments shape good future relationships and bad attachments lead to bad future relationships. A survivor often feels insecure in life instead of safe and secure. There are three different insecure attachments traits:
- Insecure-avoidant attachment style
A survivor adapts to an insecure-avoidant style of living. A person is withdrawn and sometimes hostile. They keep a distance from other people but they are also vulnerable and needy. A survivor becomes distrustful of others and emotionally distant. What is the worst of being in this way is that the survivor feels that they are constantly expecting to be let down or betrayed. This is why they often become over-controlling in nature.
2. Insecure-Ambivalent attachment style
In this state, a survivor becomes really clingy to others, or they reject everything and everyone around them. Relationships are volatile and the survivor feels highly sensitive to others. These survivors often misinterpret signals and are negative. This survivor is deeply hurt and suffers emotional pain. They overcompensate for a profound fear of being abandoned by becoming overcontrolling.
3. Insecure- Disorganized style
This survivor is highly suspicious of other people. As adults, they are extremely cautious about forming relationships and when they do try, they are finding relationships profoundly difficult. They often have a deep fear of other people. These were victims of severe abuse in a chaotic and neglectful environment.
Repairing and retraining the brain
As a child, you can’t get away because you are often living with the abuser and you have no way of healing from something you are constantly subjected to. As an adult, you can overcome dissociation by starting to come to terms with the abuse. Dissociation means the way the brain copes with too much stress. Just knowing and accepting that the abuse happened is a huge milestone to take. Also, knowing that it happened in the past and is no longer happening now is of vital importance to feel better. A survivor then has to find a way to respond and move on from the injustices made by the trauma. This can take years to do and if it does, let it! If you suffered trauma for years, then your healing will also take a long time to deal with. The last part of healing is to start to find meaning in your new life experiences and grow from them. The good news is that your body is an amazing thing and it can heal. The brain has the ability to develop new connections between neurons and redirect specific functions to alternative regions. The brain must receive new information and stimuli repeatedly. Draw attention to this new information. Fill your diet with a protein called Omega 3 which is great for the brain. Start going out in the world and form new relationships and finally get lots of sleep to allow your brain to rebuild.
Repairing the Amygdala and the prefrontal cortex
As you have read above, trauma causes the Amygdala to become overreactive. You can retrain the Amygdala to form new and beneficial pathways between itself and the prefrontal cortex. The medial prefrontal cortex can help to regulate the Amygdala and override it. You can overwrite learned behaviors from the past by telling yourself that the world is no longer dangerous. The prefrontal cortex can also be retrained. You can develop a new ability to plan ahead. You can improve your capacity of handling stress. Increasing exercise, improving your diet and improving sleep can also help. Some people recommend meditation as a way of healing.
Endorphins, Endorphins and more endorphins!
Endorphins are the body’s natural pain relievers and they can particularly boost your mood making you feel happy. This chemical is naturally produced in your body during happy and satisfying events. Endorphins are produced and stored in an area of the brain called the pituitary gland. As a survivor of trauma, your body is often in survival mode years after the abuse happened. A simple way to raise the happy endorphins in your body is by relaxing and actually making time to relax every single day. Listen to music, meditate and do yoga. Maybe even go to a spa day and have a massage. Set a time each day and take time out to relax. Do activities that you enjoy doing like a hobby in your free time. Your endorphins will start flowing in no time! Try and show the people around you some affection. It can start with as little as “I like your shirt”. Notice how people are around you and find something positive to say. If you are able to, try and enjoy sex again. Not an easy thing to do if you have suffered sexual abuse!… But when the time is right, and you meet someone who really ticks all those boxes why not enjoy each other?
Raising Oxytocin levels
Oxytocin is a hormone often referred to as the “love hormone”. The damaged part of your brain is responsible for love and trust. Oxytocin is produced from interactions with others including affectionate physical contact like sex, hugging, and caressing. Warm and loving verbal exchanges increase the emotional bonding and attachment to trusting others. Develop a deep social conscience instead of a decreased feeling of physical pain and need for approval. Having social interactions lead to increased levels of motivation to behave socially with psychological stability. You are also giving your brain the ability to be able to relax and to be warm and loving with other people. You have the confidence to interact with friends and simply enjoy being around people.
Remember healing a lifetime of hurt and trauma will take time. Be mindful and open to your suffering. Be kind to yourself and try and have a positive attitude. Retrain your brain to think and speak positively to encourage positive habits. You have come so far already. I believe anyone can live with CPTSD and still lead a mostly happy and rich life.
Elizabeth Woods grew up unwanted, in a world of brutal sex offenders, murderers, and inconceivably neglectful adults. She got caught up in a secret sex ring where her so-called father was in charge and loaned her out to vicious sexual predators for their enjoyment. She suffered sexual abuse throughout her entire childhood and desperately tried to seek help from the adults around her, who chose to sit by and watch her suffer. She was let down by doctors and psychiatrists who knew she was being abused but was sent back repeatedly to be harmed again. She was forced to witness several brutal murders right in front of her eyes. Memories that will forever be ingrained in her mind.
Elizabeth survived in an environment where most people would not and she is now able to help other survivors heal from trauma. Elizabeth now lives in a happy home with her husband and children. She has friends all around her and is working a job she loves. She lives far away from where she grew up and although she will never completely heal from her past, she at least has a bright future surrounded by love and support.
Elizabeth has written a book, telling her childhood story: The Sex-Offender’s Daughter: A True Story of Survival Against All Odds, available on Amazon Kindle. https://www.amazon.com/Sex-Offenders-Daughter-Story-Survival-Against-ebook/dp/B0BBSV97VF/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1W93IR8PLCYOH&keywords=the+sexoffenders+daughter&qid=1668277897&sprefix=the+sexoffenders+daughter%2Caps%2C151&sr=8-1
Thanks for your share. Informative.
You bring hope to the table. What a positive contribution! Thanks so much for putting all the brain connections together on one inclusive page. We who survived repeated unspeakable trauma sometimes feel like nobody understands. Obviously, you do!!! You are a blessing!!!
Thank you for your accurate, understanding, and compassionate article.
I found this article to be refreshingly clear in identifying life-long, internal damage to my brain resulting from repeated mistreatment (as well as inherited genetics).
This internal brain damage is not visible to self or others, except as it shows up in the unwanted and unhealthy behaviors that the survivor continues to perpetuate,
resulting in a restricted, dysfunctional quality of life that I am constantly struggling to survive at age 73.
It describes a lot of what happened in childhood that derailed a promising life, helping me understand why I am the way I am. I can more clearly see that “what’s wrong with me”, and why I can’t “live up to my potential”, has been deeply embedded and mis-wired into my brain chemistry.
And yes, it takes a long time to recover and heal, but what’s the alternative?! Recovery is worth it because it gives me more ability to control my life, and the healing allows me to become more who I really am, my true self.
Thanks Emily, Elke and John. I’m glad to read that my research on this topic has been helpful to you. I find it fascinating and helped me a lot to understand why I am the way I am.
This is informative. Am interested in more literature. Can you please share this article and more on my email.