When we talk about trauma, a car accident or the death of a loved one may be the first thing that comes into many people’s minds. But trauma can be small events as well as large ones. Being expelled from a friend group can be traumatic for a teenager. Experiencing a parental divorce, even an amicable one, can be a trigger for trauma as a teen’s entire world changes. Experiencing a global pandemic can also be isolating and traumatic for some teens. Unfortunately, trauma is pervasive, and it is important for parents to understand the many effects that trauma may have on their children.
Childhood trauma has a significant impact on shaping one’s self-concept and view of relationships, but it also changes the perception of social stimuli on a physical level. Many people become hypervigilant to their surroundings and hypersensitive to sensory stimuli in their environment. Sensory processing issues after traumatic events are common and can trigger negative memories, making it harder to re-establish a sense of safety in the present.
Sensory Processing Issues and Trauma
When we think of the after-effects of trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is probably the disorder that most people are familiar with. While many people related PTSD to military personnel experience, we now know that PTSD is a condition that can affect anyone who has experienced trauma. As we continue to understand trauma, we are also learning that there is more than just PTSD after a traumatic event. Trauma can have many different effects on different areas of the brain, which means that there are many different ways for teens to process that trauma.
Sensory processing issues occur when the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Some people with sensory processing disorder are very sensitive to things in their environment. For these people, common sounds, like a crowded cafeteria, may be painful or overwhelming. Or a certain clothing material may feel unbearably uncomfortable on their skin.
Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk argues that after traumatic events, our brains adapt to monitor for signs of danger and the body keeps the score. Especially as many people dissociate from what has happened to them and repress memories, “body memories” serve as a self-protective reminder. The body often responds to signs of potential danger before the brain is able to recognize them. Fight-or-flight mode was adapted as a survival instinct. People who have experienced trauma may also be hyper-vigilant and always on alert for any threat of danger. Their brains are constantly processing perceived threats in any given situation. They may have emotional reactions they did not have prior to trauma to certain sensory experiences of hearing, seeing, smelling or touching things.
Most people are familiar with the five senses, but there are actually eight senses that our brains are processing: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, body movement, body awareness, and interoception, which refers to needing the toilet or feeling hungry. When a person has sensory processing issues, their brain cannot effectively process one or more of these senses.
Obstacles to Re-establishing Healthy Relationships
A recent study by Bonn University Hospital was conducted to investigate the role of adverse childhood experiences in sensory processing, particularly physical contact. While many teens who have experienced trauma develop a rational fear of violence in relationships, this study wanted to explore why this fear often extended to all relationships, even previously positive ones.
Researchers found that traumatized people found social stimuli, like touch, less comforting than people who had not experienced trauma and maintained a greater social distance from strangers.
Examples of social stimuli include:
- Any kind of physical touch
- Physical distance
- Eye contact
- The sound of someone’s voice
Experiencing trauma also has a severe effect on people’s ability to trust. Research in 2007 found that exposure to trauma may create enough changes in the brain to sensitize people to overreact to an innocuous facial gesture years later, even in people who don’t have a stress-related disorder. Often, the traumatic event has shaken a person’s sense of safety, and because of this, they will do whatever they can to try to feel safe even if that means self-isolating. When rebuilding relationships, it is important for teens who have experienced trauma to be able to communicate their needs. These teens need to build new coping mechanisms and life skills to help them be able to have a healthy dialogue around their expectations and what may trigger their feelings related to past traumas.
Neurological Changes Affecting Sensory Processing
The study compared brain activity to patients’ responses to various social stimuli. In many cases, there was a slight incongruence between the participant reporting few changes and their brain sending flashing signals of perceived threat.
They found that three main areas of the brain were significantly affected by physical contact in participants with trauma. While areas responsible for body movement and body perception rapidly spiked with touch, areas related to emotional memory responded much slower to touch, showing a negative association.
This suggests that some physiological effects of childhood trauma linger beyond cognitive awareness and explains why teens often struggle with developing healthy relationships after traumatic events.
The Benefits of Trauma-Focused Therapy
Some adolescents who are dealing with sensory processing issues after experiencing trauma may benefit from a residential treatment center where they will receive individualized care in a comfortable setting while working with clinicians who use trauma-focused therapy.
As one of the leading trauma treatment centers for teens, at Solstice, we specialize in therapy for teens who struggle with issues of trauma, loss, attachment, and the often accompanying addictive patterns of behavior and thought. These are highly complex problems and require very specialized approaches to initiate and complete the healing process. Among many other approaches, our clinicians have received specialized, intensive training in trauma-focused interventions.
Trauma-focused therapy includes the following:
- Helps teens identify triggers
- Teaches teens about how trauma impacts them
- Helps them re-establish safety
- Encourages teens to practice somatic experiencing and relaxation techniques
- Empowers teens to develop healthier coping skills
- Allows teens to explore what healthy relationships and boundaries may look like for them
Unlike other trauma treatment centers, we define trauma more broadly than has typically been done historically. Recent neurological research has provided insight and support in developing the most effective treatment methods for trauma as it has helped us to better understand the impact of trauma on a developing, adolescent brain.
While some of our students have been victims of “big T’s”, we have found that many more of them are often as significantly impacted due to higher sensitivity, or susceptibility to “little t’s” These events often result in levels of emotional dysregulation that exceed their peers in both frequency and intensity. Then, of course, this results in students seeking relief in unhealthy and destructive ways.
The comfortable, milieu therapy setting of Solstice contributes to a safe and open culture, which invites introspection and growth, making change seem less threatening. Milieu therapy is an experiential therapeutic approach that utilizes the residential environment of our program to better understand how to help your child approach and overcome their challenges. At Solstice West, milieu therapy is carried out by observing your child’s behaviors and emotions throughout the day, within a variety of different settings. Milieu therapy provides an invaluable “in the moment” understanding of your child’s challenges, unique from traditional talk therapy. Within an emotionally safe culture, unhealthy behaviors can be gently challenged, and new options adopted more readily. Our experiential therapy approach allows our students to grow and become open to positive change in their lives.
Our therapy for teens acknowledges the fact that to create lasting, effective change, a holistic approach to health is necessary. This fact underlies and drives all the components of the Solstice program. A holistic approach accounts for the fact that our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and relational selves are all bound together. This “mind-body” philosophy is supported by a large and growing body of research that our mental and physical health is intertwined.
Solstice Can Help
Solstice RTC is a residential treatment program for young girls and assigned females at birth ages 14-18 who struggle with issues such as anxiety, depression, trauma, and unhealthy relationships. Solstice takes a holistic approach in understanding how these issues affect girls’ minds, bodies, and spirits. We create individualized treatment plans for each student considering their individual needs, strengths, and goals to help them regain a strong sense of self.
With a strong emphasis on family therapy based intervention, nutrition, and physical fitness, and the supportive provision of cutting-edge academics, substance abuse/addiction therapy, equine therapy, and psychiatric services, Solstice sets the stage for the infusion of light into the previously darkened lives of the families we serve. Students will leave with the skills they need to transition into the world feeling confident, happy, and able to manage their emotions. We can help your family today!
Contact us at 866-278-3345 for more information about how we help teen girls and assigned females at birth struggling with trauma.