Hi, at the moment I am going through lecture notes and articles on the impact of trauma on the brain and have also only just started reading Siegel’s Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind. The short piece below is the result of this activity
‘Our early beginning sets the stage for better or worse’ Allan Schore
Across time and place we humans have continually let our children down, by robbing them of a nurturing and safe childhood and of their inherent, genetic potential to become who they are meant to be. We now know that, to a great extent, it is the quality of their childhood experiences that will or will not allow them to express their genetic potential and that our ‘genetic gifts’ contain our potential, but are not guaranteed and are highly dependent on the nurturing we receive during childhood, especially during the first few years of our lives. Over the last 20 years advances in neuroscience and integration of these findings with psychology and developmental theory ,have provided much insight on the profound impact that childhood trauma and early neglect have on the brain and the influence that this has on shaping the individual. Recent research by Allan Schore, Bessel van der Kolk, Bruce Perry, Daniel Siegel and others, shows that early adverse experiences (even pre-natal experiences – the right brain is dominant in the uterus) affect the developing brain, especially the right hemisphere, which is involved in the limbic, the autonomic and the arousal systems. It is further supported that relational trauma, abuse, inconsistent care and neglect have the most negative impact. Allan Schore suggests that survivors of early trauma develop an immature right brain, which develops earlier, due to their traumatic attachment history. The right brain is connected more to the body and the bodily based unconscious and holds our implicit memories – our memories of trauma and our survival strategies to deal with it, like for instance, the defense of dissociation against trauma and overwhelming emotions and experiences. Allan Schore describes dissociation as the inability of the right brain cortical-subcortical system to co-process external and internal stimuli. Dan Siegel describes dissociation as an adaptation – as the capacity for divided attention and the creation of dissociated barriers across states of mind. He notes that we all have multiple / different mind states, but trauma results in the creation of barriers between them,and views trauma as an assault on integration, which provides linkage of differentiated parts and is the basis of affect, behaviour and attention regulation. Martin Teicher suggests that severe chronic abuse and neglect can cause the decrease or damage of integrative fibres in the brain, which is the basis of growth and healing. Finally, Dan Siegel claims that ‘integration in the brain creates a balanced and coordinated nervous system. In turn, an integrated brain permits empathic relationships and is important for a resilient and healthy mind’ (2012-04-02).
Research supports that repeated, prolonged trauma in childhood affects the neurophysiological networks and neuroendocrine systems. For instance, developmental trauma causes abnormal activity in the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system and plays a significant role in regulating emotions. Also, chronic stress in childhood may cause structural differences and neuronal loss. Neuroscientists claim that that the volume of the hippocampus is reduced in children with high cortisol levels and a diagnosis of PTSD and that impairment in the hippocampus may result in memory and other cognitive problems. High cortisol levels are associated with anxiety and the reliving aspects of the trauma (fight / flight responses) and can contribute to many physical diseases and health problems. It has also been found that if the stress is chronic and prolonged or if the infant is severely neglected and has experienced little arousal and soothing from her environment then the levels of cortisol may be dramatically reduced over time, which is associated with emotional and somatic numbness (freeze responses). Actually, children who experience emotional deprivation and neglect during the period of the early development of the brain may be more at risk of suffering losses in the frontal cortex. Dan Siegel suggests that secure attachment in early childhood can provide for the integration of function between the two hemispheres’ (cited in Ikeda, 2014). Furthermore, optimal development of the more complex systems of the brain like the cortex requires healthy development of the less complex systems like the brainstem and midbrain because brain systems develop in a sequential fashion and are interdependent.
However, despite the fact that there is more and more evidence now that our infancy has the power to shape us,millions of children across the world are being, as Ιam writing this, exploited, starved, abused, tortured, injured, degraded, abandoned or severely neglected. Those that will survive will inevitably focus on dealing with these adverse experiences as best they can and will resort to natural defense mechanisms that are adaptive to whatever environment their brains perceive, losing much of their potential or humanity on the way. And of all the different ways we fail our children, ‘sexual abuse is the worst because it is the most persistent, pervasive and destructive failure of humankind. The long term effects of this abuse are multi-dimensional and mostly negative because while it is true that the strength and resilience that can be seen following abuse is part of the best of our species, the cost of this post-traumatic wisdom is high’(Perry, 2013). Sexual abuse increases the risk for physical and mental health problems, is linked to addictions and eating disorders, impacts our relationships with others, causes academic and work problems, increases risk of re-victimization in adulthood and compromises potential in general. Furthermore, the cost of childhood abuse and trauma is enormous for society both in terms of losses in money and humanity. Creating non-caring societies and failing to protect our children inevitably leads to multiple problems for society as a whole and most importantly is conducive to increasing violence. Without early healthy experiences and attachments infants may not develop the neurobiological capacity to form and maintain healthy relationships, to regulate emotions, to become empathic and to be able to love and respect others. So our choices as adults, concerning each new generation, whether that involves parenting, teaching, creating policies and educational systems or laws and social structures that protect or fail to protect children, will profoundly influence society and our future as a species. Dan Siegel believes that life is a journey towards integration and integration made visible is kindness and compassion, towards the self and others.
Tonya Kyriazis-Alexandri-January, 2014
Perry, D. B. (2013-07-27) BRIEF: Reflections on Childhood, Trauma and Society, The Child Trauma Academy Press, Kindle Edition
Siegel, Daniel J. (2012-04-02) Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind, W. W. Norton & Company, Kindle Edition.