Can Childhood Trauma Change Your Brain?

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The post is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.

Neglect and emotional maltreatment in childhood can alter brain development in irreversible ways. These alterations in brain structure seem to be of sufficient magnitude to be a potential contributor to adult-onset mental health issues, including mental illnesses and substance abuse.

As many as one in five Americans say they were emotionally abused or neglected as a child. Instances of emotional abuse may include:

  • Addressing a youngster with profanity, name-calling, or insults
  • Making explicit threats to harm the child
  • Causing undue fear by means of terrorization or other means

Forgetting about a kid’s feelings and not doing anything about it is emotional neglect. A few examples of this would be:

  • Have faith in them
  • Make your family closer
  • Do anything to make the child feel unique or valued
  • Lend a helping hand
  • Desire the child’s success

The Neurological Effects of Abuse

The brains of children go through spurts of extraordinary growth as they mature. Negative experiences can interrupt crucial stages of brain development, leading to long-term changes in the brain.

Studies back up this concept, showing that the timing and duration of childhood abuse might affect the way it impacts those children later in life. Abuse that begins at a young age and persists for a long time, for instance, can have devastating effects.

Researchers led by Dr. Martin Teicher from McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and Northeastern University used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe structural differences in the brains of adults who had been abused or neglected as children.

In nine brain regions, they saw significant differences between those who had suffered childhood trauma and those who had not. The most striking alterations occurred in areas of the brain responsible for maintaining emotional and impulsive regulation, as well as for reflective thought. According to the findings of this study, those who were abused or neglected as children do face a higher chance of having mental health problems in adulthood.

Anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and psychosis are all more likely to occur in people who were abused as children.

Alterations in regions of the brain responsible for impulse control and decision making may also increase the person’s vulnerability to substance abuse as a result of the experience.

Resulting Changes in Brain Structure

Neglect and maltreatment in childhood can have lasting consequences for brain development. Here are a few examples:

  • Cortical integration, including motor, sensory, and cognitive functions, is impaired by a shortened corpus callosum.
  • The hippocampus, a brain region crucial for learning and memory, shrinks.
  • Disruption of the stress-response hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis at many levels
  • Changes in behavior, emotional stability, and perceptual clarity due to decreased prefrontal cortex volume
  • Hyperactivity in the emotional control center, the amygdala, which plays a role in how one responds to potentially threatening or stressful events.
  • Causes motor skill and coordination impairments due to a smaller cerebellum

Treatment

The negative outcomes of experiencing emotional abuse or neglect as a child can be treated. Due to the diversity of maltreatment and the potential for different reactions in different people, treatment in these circumstances is typically highly individualized. Visit BetterHelp to learn more about how therapy and other mental health treatments are tailored to patients on a case by case basis. 

Therapy is the cornerstone of any treatment plan, and medication may be used if necessary to manage symptoms or accompanying mental health disorders. Here are a few examples of helpful therapies:

Exposure therapy

During exposure treatment, patients gradually increase their exposure to their feared stimulus while practicing relaxation techniques. A possible benefit of this treatment is enhanced communication between different parts of the brain.

Family counseling

Therapy for the whole family, or family therapy, is a form of talk therapy with the goal of fostering healthier relationships and a more harmonious household. This method of treatment has the potential to enhance HPA axis function, resulting in a more positive emotional reaction to stress.

Practicing mindfulness

In order to better understand and control one’s emotions and thoughts, mindfulness-based treatment encourages its patients to cultivate a heightened awareness of these processes. These methods, by potentially helping several areas of the brain and strengthening neural connections, may enhance resilience in the face of stress.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy for trauma

People who have experienced trauma might benefit from trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) by developing a personal trauma narrative to guide them through the healing process. Treatment of this kind has the potential to lessen amygdala hyperactivity.

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