Can You Thrive After Childhood Trauma?

Published on December 9, 2014 by Constance Scharff, Ph.D. in Ending Addiction for Good

Recovery from traumatic events is never easy. However, humans are amazingly adaptable. Unfortunately, survival does not mean thriving. A person can survive traumatic events and be scarred for the rest of their life. Trauma affects children particularly profoundly. Children do not just get over trauma; they live with the consequences for a lifetime.

Children adapt so they can cope, but if they are emotionally overwhelmed, their brain goes into survival mode, which changes the way it grows and develops. An early traumatic experience has a profound effect on the way in which a child’s brain forms and functions. A brain that grows in response to a perceived threat is in overdrive and senses threat everywhere. Stress causes the brain to work too hard, too often, for too long. This creates a foundation for psychological distress and mental illness later in life.

Studies over the past 40 years found children who have been through abuse or extreme stress have higher rates of depression, anxiety and other mental and physical problems than other children do. Nevertheless, few scientists have attempted to understand the biology of what was occurring in the brains of these traumatized children. A growing, international field of study revolves around the ways early experience becomes embedded in the body and brain, and how those embedded traits change the brain’s function.

Charles Nelson is a researcher at Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child, who believes the notion of early brain plasticity is particularly compelling. He claims:

“By plasticity, we simply mean the brain’s ability to be molded by experience. And we have an expression that plasticity cuts both ways, meaning that if it is a good experience, it is probably good for the brain. But if it’s a bad experience, it may be bad for the brain.”

Nelson found that children who grew up neglected had less electrical activity in the brain and smaller brains overall than their peers; they had lost brain cells as well as the connections between those cells. This damage was present for a lifetime.

If certain healthful experiences do not happen, like appropriate nurturing or boundary setting, the brain does not know how to wire itself. There are many theories on how positive and negative experiences rewire the brain. It is a mystery how some people withstand profound early adversity and seem to come out just fine, while others continue to suffer. Is there something neurological that allows for this difference or is the difference environmental? We know that with the right long term therapy, kindness and support, children can often change their brain function and life-outcomes.

There is growing empirical support for the efficacy of trauma focused cognitive behavior training (CBT) in decreasing psychological symptomology in abused or neglected children. Major components of trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for children and adolescents are exposure, cognitive processing and reframing, stress management, and parental treatment. Evidence now supports the success of many alternative and holistic treatment methods also.

Treating childhood and adolescent trauma can prevent or decrease the likelihood of developing future mental health conditions. Left untreated, brain dysfunction can eventually lead many to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, risking addiction, depression and possibly suicide. Seek professional advice if you or a close family member have experienced a difficult situation or event. Recovery is possible with some effort and the correct help.

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