It is commonly accepted that an accumulation of multiple adverse childhood experiences makes adults more likely to continue to face negative experiences. However, a recent study conducted by the University of Missouri revealed that adults who have experienced childhood trauma still experience the physical effects years later. Especially as children’s brains are still developing rapidly, experiencing traumatic events leaves them vulnerable to rewiring of circuits and underdevelopment of neural connectivity. The narratives we adopt about our traumatic experiences are deeply ingrained in our brain’s stress response system which makes it difficult for adults to recover from the lingering effects of childhood trauma.
Understanding Effects of Childhood Trauma On Development
It is hard for us to recall our earliest memories before the age of seven. While we are more likely to remember significant events or vague schemas of a vacation or a childhood friend, most people suffer from childhood amnesia, which refers to our brain’s inability to store early memories into long-term memories due to its stage in development.
Ironically, the first seven years of our lives are also the most formative in developing a sense of self, our perspective of the world, coping skills, and attachment styles. It is when the majority of our language learning takes place and how we learn to orient ourselves in space and time.
For children who have experienced early childhood trauma during this critical stage of personal growth, their development may be profoundly altered by adoption of negative beliefs about themselves, their relationships, and their outlook on like. Physiologically, their ability to self regulate may be impacted by hyperarousal and persistent anxiety.
While the type of traumatic events adults face may be different than trauma children experience at home, developmental trauma refers to the effect of early adverse experiences on the brain’s ability to develop executive functioning skills that help build resilience and protect one’s safety later in life. The lower parts of our brain are dedicated to survival, while upper parts of our brain that develop during childhood involve emotion regulation, moral judgment, and problem solving. Interrupting one’s brain development during survival mode can trigger survival responses to stressors as an adult if they don’t have the skills to self-regulate.
According to University of Missouri postdoctoral fellow Yang Li, “our model indicates some people are biologically more resilient than others to PTSD. Normally, the body’s stress response system is regulated by two hormones: cortisol, which floods the body in response to a stressful event, and oxytocin, which brings cortisol levels back down once the stressor has passed.”
They found that people with a dissociative form of PTSD were more likely to have significant changes in cortisol and oxytocin that impact their ability to respond to stress appropriately. These biological markers may contribute to their disrupted sense of of self and their surroundings.
The study concludes that hormone levels may be key to understanding why some people are more likely to experience a traumatic response to certain events and some people may be more resilient or unaffected. It also suggests that we should focus more on regulating physiological causes and symptoms of stress before addressing stressful situations so that people are better prepared to make sense of their experiences.
Li notes that “PTSD might surface in response to a specific event in adulthood, but what we are seeing suggests that in many cases, the real root of the problem is in the damage caused during childhood.”
Due to childhood amnesia, many symptoms of early traumatic stress are internalized or are hard to process properly. Teenagers may struggle to understand that their overwhelming emotions are stemming from something deeper than typical hormone shifts or stressful everyday situations.
Effects of traumatic stress depend on the individual; however, regardless of how it appears, it is usually considered a risk factor for later problems in adulthood.
- Avoiding situations that make them recall the traumatic event
- Experiencing nightmares or flashbacks about the trauma
- Seeking out or ending up in similar situations or relationships
- Insecure or avoidant attachment
- Feeling restless or on edge, ready to jump into fight-or flight
- Acting impulsively or aggressively
- Feeling nervous or anxious frequently
- Experiencing emotional numbness
- Having trouble focusing at school
- Using negative coping skills, such as drug and alcohol use, self-harm and other self-destructive behaviors
How We Can Help
Solstice West is a residential treatment center that creates a supportive space for teenage girls and assigned female at birth ages 14-18 to process their trauma and grow emotionally. We take a relationship-based approach to healing from personal trauma that encourages friendship, peer support, and mentorship through group therapy and teamwork. Our treatment model incorporates adventure therapy, fitness, artistic expression, and community service to encourage normal adolescent experiences, social skills, independent living skills, and playfulness that are often restricted when experiencing significant traumatic stress.