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When experiences are traumatic, the pathways getting the most use are those in response to the trauma; this reduces the formation of other pathways needed for adaptive behavior. For example, a trauma in early childhood can result in disrupted attachment, cognitive delays, and impaired emotional regulation. The impaired emotional regulation may also lead to addiction, depression, lack of personal growth, not getting an education, leading to lack of financial resources, most likely leading back to depression or addictive behaviors, continuing the trauma cycle, and staying “stuck.”

What are some impacts on the development of individuals who have experienced trauma?

To reiterate, for some people, a traumatic event can lead to mental health issues such as:

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Detrimental impacts on relationships with family, friends, and at work.

What is development trauma?

Developmental Trauma is the term used to describe the impact of early, repeated trauma and loss that happens within the child’s important relationships, usually early in life. This type of trauma can have lasting effects on the brain in areas involving memory, cognition, behavior, sensory processing, emotion regulation, and attachment. Developmental trauma is different from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although it has been observed that children who have experienced developmental trauma are more vulnerable to developing PTSD.

Most developmental traumatologists agree that children can experience developmental trauma from any situation in which they cannot psychologically process the level of threat or loss and have no one to help them regulate their intense emotional reactions.

Children with histories of early relational trauma are often misdiagnosed as having a psychiatric disorder such as Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, bipolar disorder, depression, or schizophrenia. This is because children who have been traumatized can exhibit symptoms similar to these other disorders. However, the primary cause of the trauma needs to be identified and differentiated from a symptom of a co-morbid disorder.

Additionally, developmental traumatologists have found that many “overlook the subtle but pervasive injuries of relational trauma and do not adequately assess for them.” This is evident in how often health care professionals misdiagnose RAD. As a result, many children from traumatic backgrounds are currently diagnosed with RAD without any history of maltreatment or abuse.

What are some examples of development trauma?

Development trauma may occur when the child is not provided with adequate emotional regulation and adapt to an environment in which they do not influence their safety. Developmental traumatologists have observed that children who experience relational trauma early in life often had parents who were overwhelmed by their own trauma histories or by an inability to cope with their infant’s distress. These parents also often fail to provide consistent emotional regulation because they are either over-controlling due to their own anxiety about the child acting out or under-controlling due to being unable to regulate themselves in response to the child’s heightened arousal. The under-controlling caregiver may be unable to “comfort” the child because they do not remember how to comfort themselves and instead becomes overwhelmed and anxious.

Early relational trauma is so significant in a child’s development because their brains are rapidly growing and organizing during the first three years of life, and this lays the foundation for all future learning and behavior. In addition, the brain is constantly adapting to the child’s environment; when there is danger, it encodes this warning signal to fight, flight, or freeze response.

Does trauma keep you at the age you experienced it?

Trauma can “freeze” your emotional response at the age you experience it because, on a neurobiological level, the trauma is not correctly processed. It can rewire your brain in such a way that ultimately influences your thought patterns and behavioral responses as you get older.

How does trauma change your brain?

When we experience trauma, the brain shuts down all nonessential systems and activates the sympathetic nervous system and the mammalian brain. To help us survive the trauma, the brain releases stress hormones and triggers the flight or fight response.

The hippocampus is an area of the brain involved in learning, memory, and emotion regulation. The hippocampus modifies behavior when there is a perceived threat or danger to ensure that the person can alter their behavior to protect themselves from harm

For example, if you are walking through a crowded street at night-time and hear footsteps behind you, you will likely feel a sense of fear and anxiety. This feeling is due to the hippocampus’s activation in response to possible threats or danger. The hippocampus then sends auditory information from the ear through the thalamus into the brain stem, activating the amygdala, which alerts us to be aware of potential threats. The amygdala also helps determine whether or not a threat is real and whether the danger should be responded to. This way, people can feel fear without having to experience traumatic events firsthand.

However, in a child who has been traumatized, the hippocampus’s ability to modulate behavior when there is perceived danger may be impaired. Their past experiences may have caused them to become hyper-aware of danger, and any perceived threats may activate their fight, flight or freeze response. The hippocampus cannot cope with the amount of information it receives concerning trauma, causing extreme anxiety in children who have experienced relational trauma. Not only that, but when the child’s stress hormones are activated without adequate emotional regulation from caregivers to help calm them, the amount of cortisol in their brain may build up and decrease the number of connections made between neurons.

In an infant, when a caregiver is not available to provide emotional regulation, stress hormones build up and disrupt neural networks, responsible for managing emotions and learning self-regulation. In this way, development trauma can cause inhibitory or excitatory imbalances in brain functions. As a result, the sufferer becomes “stuck” because they are unable to learn new skills required for control over emotions, especially when the amygdala has become hyper-reactive to perceived threats.

How a Traumatic Experience Could Impact Development

In conclusion, trauma can affect the hippocampus and amygdala so that they cannot regulate stress hormones effectively, which leads to an over-activation of the fight, flight, or freeze response, thus leading to a life of discomfort if not acknowledged and treated by a professional.

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