Understanding the Impact of Trauma on the Developing Brain through Neuroscience
Neuroscience has given us extensive knowledge and understanding of how neurons connect and how the brain functions. This particularly informs the impact of environmental factors on an individual’s developing brain. We now know that an environment providing a secure base, meaning physical, emotional, and relational safety and a secure bond with caregivers, provides optimal conditions for brain development and allows children to learn, grow and thrive. The following overview offers a synthesis of knowledge from trauma specialists, whose work has enabled understanding of the complexity of developmental neuroscience, specifically the effects of stress and trauma on the developing brain. Yet, with this ever-expanding knowledge base, we continue to live with pandemic proportions of stress, anxiety, and mental health issues. To bring change, it is important to firstly reflect on our own relationship and learning history, its impact on how we deal with stress and anxiety, and on our own mental health and well-being. It is also important knowledge for our children and caregiving within homes, care institutions and school environments, all significant to the individual child’s learning history.
Stress, Safety and Neuronal Connections
Stress is normal to a child’s developmental struggle for growing independence. It plays a part in the attachment process involving the child’s connection to and disconnection from caregivers which evolves into the child’s developing sense of safety in the world:
Connection helps children feel secure, confident, and happy. But disconnection is also part of life. We separate from our children to go to work and for them to go to school. Disconnection also occurs, more painfully, when we are angry with our children, when they are angry with us, when they are scared or when they feel alone. Disconnection is at the heart of many behavior problems. We often respond to “bad behavior” with isolation, time-outs, humiliation, threats, yelling or withdrawal of love. These responses create even more disconnection, which is why they don’t work (Cohen, 2013, p. xviii).
Connection and disconnection also apply within our brains. The first principle of neuroscience being neurons connect. Neuronal disconnection results in dementia! (Rousseau, 2016). Secure attachment promotes neuronal connections that allow the child to develop patterns of approach toward others; the child develops a safe base from which they are open to connect with others, explore the world, and develop an integrated sense of self.
Relational trauma in childhood, not only obvious physical and emotional abuse, but also painful and unresolved relational disconnection, changes neuronal connections. This creates hypervigilance, a state of high alert within the brain. The child develops avoidance tendencies in their behavior towards others, and/or they protectively ‘shut-down’ within relationship and within themselves (their brain), all of which impact the child’s ability to connect with others, to learn and thrive. All forms of unresolved trauma create states of stress, and anxiety. Today we are well-informed of how stress affects our brain. Working in stressful environments, raises the risk of Alzheimer’s by 20% (Rousseau, 2016). Our ability to learn is hugely impacted by traumatic and stressful experiences as this impacts the way neurons connect and shape our brain architecture. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315808888
Stress and the Triune Brain
The following is a summarized version of the incredible complexity of the neuroscience involved in brain development, particularly the effect of stress. The brain can be simplistically divided into three working areas, Brainstem, Midbrain and Cortex, called the “Triune Brain” https://www.thescienceofpsychotherapy.com/the-triune-brain/ . This provides a simple model to understand the brain’s response to stress and trauma. Brain development begins in utero and is organized from bottom to top, the lower brainstem and midbrain regions are simplest and develop first, starting in utero and continuing into adulthood. Moving upward and outward, it develops increasing complexity within the midbrain limbic system and outer cortex. These areas ‘awaken’ sequentially during development, each area more complex and relying upon successful organization of the lower area. Trauma occurring within early development affects the sequential development and functioning of the higher brain regions (Siegel, 2013 & Perry, 2007).
With Thanks to Conscious Discipline for their Safety, Connection and Problem-Solving model
BRAINSTEM (SURVIVAL brain): this includes the body’s life-support systems that work automatically to keep us alive and are closely connected to the alarm system that drives the fight/flight response. The alarm system triggers the release of adrenaline via the sympathetic nervous system which communicates to other areas of the brain and is felt in the body as it prepares us to either fight, flee or freeze.
Our alarm system is activated by actual or perceived threats to our survival. However, the alarm system becomes poorly regulated where there are repeated threats to our safety, causing it to be hypervigilant, on constant high alert, particularly in childhood while the brain is still developing. When this occurs, it cannot return to the resting, ‘relaxed’ state, when we are safe and where our brain and body function optimally. This then affects other brain areas, including the way memories are laid down, our attention, impulse control, and our ability to learn. Consistent high levels of adrenaline correlate with increased anxiety, arousal, and irritability which long-term results in a heightened startle response, enhancing the child’s impression of the world as dangerous and unsettling, and can place children on a trajectory towards anxiety disorders. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2852033 /
MIDBRAIN (SOCIAL/ EMOTIONAL/ IMPLUSIVE brain): development in this region continues until approximately aged 25. It includes our reward centers, emotions and memory and it provides vital communication with the brainstem’s alarm center, enabling us to respond to threats, to control our levels of stress and to feel basic emotions such as fear and anger as well as happiness and satisfaction. This area directs our ability to make vital social connections, either with approach patterns or avoidance tendencies, based on behavior patterns developed within our relationship history.
The midbrain links the complex interconnecting circuits of the limbic system, amygdala and hippocampus with the brainstem and outer cortex. This system is vital in weaving together our attachment history, emotions, memory, and motivation; directly influencing how we learn and whether we learn to survive or thrive. https://www.simplypsychology.org/limbic-system.html#:~:text=The%20limbic%20system%20is%20a,the%20amygdala%2C%20and%20the%20hypothalamus.
CORTEX (SMART brain): growth continues throughout life, and this area controls conscious thought, planning and language. This area is always dependent on the ‘relaxed’ state of the survival brain, meaning that our ability to think rationally, plan and function socially is entirely dependent on how we have learnt to control the brainstem’s threat response or feeling safe in our world. When our brainstem is alarmed, our ability to think clearly and our sense of being in control is greatly reduced.
Our “SMART” or learning brain, enables us to make choices using our thinking brain instead of reacting impulsively to emotions. A region at the front of the brain, the ‘pre-frontal cortex’, is called the command center or executive brain, directly connecting the cortex to the limbic midbrain and brainstem regions. This prefrontal area coordinates and balances information and energy from the cortex, limbic area, brainstem, body, and social world, allowing us to make choices and plan. It also maps our social world, making maps of oneself for insight as well as mapping what is going on inside other people’s nervous systems allowing for empathy and morality. Brain, body, and social world are woven together into one whole by the master functions of the prefrontal cortex. We are able to cultivate the growth of the integrative fibers of our prefrontal cortex with self-reflective practices, through mindfulness and through positive interactions with others (Siegel, 2013).
Major development in neuronal connections in the frontal lobe of the cortex occur during infancy and childhood. Incredibly, it doubles in size in the first year, keeps growing to about 80% of adult size by age 3 and is nearly full grown 90% by age 5. https://www.firstthingsfirst.org/early-childhood-matters/brain-development/. In adolescence, more dramatic linkage occurs across different neural regions with one another. In this way, the cortex has a highly integrative role in coordinating and balancing the brain, the nervous system and body as a whole. This enables diverse abilities such as cognitive control, emotional regulation, ‘gist’ thinking (sifting through all the details to find the core issues), self-understanding and social functioning all essential for mental/emotional health, for greater conceptual thinking and creativity.
Brain Plasticity and Stress
The early research on neural plasticity (the ability of the brain to change) began by exploring the impact of different types of environments on brain development. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222570/ These findings demonstrated that the brain becomes more complex, active, and robust in response to an enriched environment that includes challenging educational and experiential opportunities. There is no doubt, the human brain grows in response to challenge and new learning. Mild to moderate stress activates neural growth hormones that support new learning. This stress is seen in the form of curiosity, enthusiasm, and pleasure and as we are motivated to relieve discomfort and distress.
High stress levels that accompany traumatic experiences, that overwhelm an individual’s coping capacity result in many forms of dissociation or disconnection between thoughts, behaviors, sensations, and emotions (Briere & Scott, 2013). These experiences can impact mental/emotional health causing such conditions as Anxiety disorders, Dissociative disorders, and PTSD. “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in memory as the wish to forget it” Michel de Montaigne (Cozolino, 2010, p.80). In essence, the legacy of trauma disrupts a person’s sense of who they are, including their memory, their ability to recognize danger, to take care of and nurture their body, to control their impulses and to have satisfying, mutual relationships (Vermilyea, 2000, p. 6).
Nature verses Nurture
Our genes determine fundamental aspects of brain anatomy and how neurons initially link together, but equally important are our experiences that create unique connections, molding the basic structure of each unique brain. It is not so much as experience versus biology, or nature versus nature, but in fact, experience shapes brain structure.
Experience is biology! How we treat our children changes who they are and how they will develop; nature needs nurture (Siegel & Hartzell, 2014). Our experiences matter!
Experiences that connect us as humans also build positive brain connections! Experiences where we feel safe and understood, where there is empathy and respect for choices made, no matter what age. Even very young children need to make choices for themselves (age appropriate) and learn from the consequences of their choices. Furthermore, within our learning environments, experiences that capture the child’s interest, enthusiasm and motivation are crucial and an ongoing challenge for learning specialists. But the first step is always the need to feel safe within the learning environment!
To summarize, close relationships across our life span shape us. Connection to others enriches our lives by promoting neural integration which support a healthy mind. Disconnection from others disrupts neural integration and the ability to learn, grow and thrive. From this knowledge, it is imperative that our homes and learning environments understand the fundamental need for safe relationships and connection and can recognize the effects of disconnection and trauma on the child’s ability to learn. We then need to learn the fundamentals of building relationships that connect us, understanding that safe expression of emotions is the currency to use to build connecting relationships and how suppressing emotions is a crucial player in anxiety disorders (Cohen, 2013).
The best news from neuroscience for all ages, is that it is never too late to learn! We can change the way our brain patterns developed, through learning to calm our own nervous system, through practices of self-reflection, mindfulness, and patience and kindness to ourselves and others! This invites you into my next blog on how to learn to use the body’s calming, polyvagal nervous system to feel safe, diminish your fight/flight alarm response and enhance connections with others!
Author: Lenore Hall, M. Couns, RN, B.Occ Th.
To make an appointment with Lenore please can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422 or M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or select here for Online Booking.
“Principles of Trauma Therapy” Briere, J.N. & Scott, C. 2013
“The Opposite of Worry” Cohen, L.J., 2013.
“The Impact of Trauma on the Brain” Louis J. Cozolino, 2005.
“The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy. Healing the Social Brain” Louis J. Cozolino, 2010.
“The boy who was raised as a dog: And other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook” Bruce D. Perry, 2007.
“Relationships within the Workplace” Rousseau, 2016 (Lecture, Brisbane, AUS)
“The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” Siegel, D.J., 2013.
“Parenting from the inside out” Siegel, D.J & Hartzell, M. 2014.
“Growing beyond Survival. A self-help toolkit for managing traumatic stress” Vermilyea, E.G, 2000.