Childhood Trauma Leads to Brains Wired for Fear

 Sound Medicine

brain regions
Last week, a report by the University of San Diego School of Law found that about 686,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect in 2013. Traumatic childhood events can lead to mental health and behavioral problems later in life, explains psychiatrist and traumatic stress expert Bessel van der Kolk author of the recently published book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Children’s brains are literally shaped by traumatic experiences, which can lead to problems with anger, addiction, and even criminal activity in adulthood, says van der Kolk. Sound Medicine’s Barbara Lewis spoke with Dr. van der Kolk about his book. Here are highlights from the interview.

Sound Medicine: Can psychologically traumatic events change the physical structure of the brain?

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk: Yes, they can change the connections and activations in the brain. They shape the brain.

The human brain is a social organ that is shaped by experience, and that is shaped in order to respond to the experience that you’re having. So particularly earlier in life, if you’re in a constant state of terror; your brain is shaped to be on alert for danger, and to try to make those terrible feelings go away.

The brain gets very confused. And that leads to problems with excessive anger, excessive shutting down, and doing things like taking drugs to make yourself feel better. These things are almost always the result of having a brain that is set to feel in danger and fear.

As you grow up an get a more stable brain, these early traumatic events can still cause changes that make you hyper-alert to danger, and hypo-alert to the pleasures of everyday life.

SM: So are you saying that a child’s brain is much more malleable than an adult brain?

BK: A child’s brain is virtually nonexistent. It’s being shaped by experience. So yes, it’s extremely malleable.

SM: What is the mechanism by which traumatic events change the brain?

BK: The brain is formed by feedback from the environment. It’s a profoundly relational part of our body.

In a healthy developmental environment, your brain gets to feel a sense of pleasure, engagement, and exploration. Your brain opens up to learn, to see things, to accumulate information, to form friendships.

It’s about becoming safe to feel what you feel. When you’re traumatized you’re afraid of what you’re feeling, because your feeling is always terror, or fear or helplessness. I think these body-based techniques help you to feel what’s happening in your body, and to breathe into it and not run away from it. So you learn to befriend your experience.

But if you’re in an orphanage for example, and you’re not touched or seen, whole parts of your brain barely develop; and so you become an adult who is out of it, who cannot connect with other people, who cannot feel a sense of self, a sense of pleasure. If you run into nothing but danger and fear, your brain gets stuck on just protecting itself from danger and fear.

SM: Does trauma have a very different effect on children compared to adults?

BK: Yes, because of developmental issues. If you’re an adult and life’s been good to you, and then something bad happens, that sort of injures a little piece of the whole structure. But toxic stress in childhood from abandonment or chronic violence has pervasive effects on the capacity to pay attention, to learn, to see where other people are coming from, and it really creates havoc with the whole social environment.

And it leads to criminality, and drug addiction, and chronic illness, and people going to prison, and repetition of the trauma on the next generation.

SM: Are there effective solutions to childhood trauma?

BK: It is difficult to deal with but not impossible.

One thing we can do – which is not all that well explored because there hasn’t been that much funding for it – is neurofeedback, where you can actually help people to rewire the wiring of their brain structures.

Another method is putting people into safe environments and helping them to create a sense of safety inside themselves. And for that you can go to simple things like holding and rocking.

We just did a study on yoga for people with PTSD. We found that yoga was more effective than any medicine that people have studied up to now. That doesn’t mean that yoga cures it, but yoga makes a substantial difference in the right direction.

SM: What is it about yoga that helps?

BK: It’s about becoming safe to feel what you feel. When you’re traumatized you’re afraid of what you’re feeling, because your feeling is always terror, or fear or helplessness.  I think these body-based techniques help you to feel what’s happening in your body, and to breathe into it and not run away from it. So you learn to befriend your experience.

Sound Medicine – Childhood Trauma

17 thoughts on “Childhood Trauma Leads to Brains Wired for Fear

  1. I have bought this book and am about to read it. I think it’s incredible how profoundly the brain is affected by trauma such as childhood abuse. I have set out on the long difficult journey to try and heal and rewire my brain; changing all the connections. The deep sense of fear still pervades, and I wake up with a sense of unexplained terror every morning but this work is more important than anything else I have ever done!

    • Hi there.. I’ve been on the same journey :o)
      It’s amazing how much you learn trying to heal. We become quite the experts.

      I’m so sorry you wake with such a sense of terror – not good. I wonder what it stems from?

      Interesting regarding the yoga
      as medicine. I suppose it reduces the anxiety.
      I hope the book’s good :o)

      • Hi. Yes it is interesting about the yoga, I might look into it as I do meditation also and that helps.

        The early morning terror I think comes from my childhood. I may have felt that way in the morning after the abuse (horrible) , I am not sure but I am hopeful that I can lose that too.

        I am finding your blog an excellent source of information, you have certainly become an expert. thank you for sharing!

      • .. hugs …
        We spend our adulthoods healing from our childhoods.

        Finally after a lot of hard work I’m really starting to heal – and the light is pretty damn beautiful when you get out of the tunnel.

        Thank you for your kind comments and I’ll say a little prayer for you – that you find peace and love in your heart and soul asap :o)

      • Hey there.. I just read ‘your story’. Wow… you really can express yourself beautifully . I always find it amazing that someone shares ‘my story’. I can’t believe the similarities.

        Our lives become deeply complex as children … someone who wasn’t abused could never really understand.
        My abuse also happened pre-verbal, then the 28 year abusive marriage, chronic ill health, years of counselling, until eventually finding out some of the story of what had really happened to me as a very young child..
        We work so hard to heal ourselves on so many levels – most people think it’s as simple as – ‘okay that happened.. the past is over.. just get on with living now’ .. They have no idea how much we would love it to be that easy..
        I am now 47 now and finally feel like there is a wonderful future ahead of me. I have no idea how that will unfold but it is very slowly unfolding..

        Doing the work leads us to complete freedom, an amazing feeling of inner peace and wisdom beyond our years.

        So very deserved..

  2. Yes it is unbelievable how childhood trauma at a very young age leads so many into abusive relationships and that’s why our stories are so similar. Well done for all the hard work you have done to heal and I am certain that you future holds many treasures.

    The scars of our childhood are indelible but somehow we learn to integrate them into our wholeness and use them to help and guide others.

    I will keep reading your posts! Thank you for your support and encouragement. It helps me so much to know that I am not alone in this; that there are many who have travelled this path and inspire me daily!

    Blessings to you.

  3. Reblogged this on Gentle Kindness and commented:
    This is the best article about this issue that I have come across. It describes the affects of C-PTST from childhood mental or physical abuse on the brain development.

    The interruptions and miswiring of your brain during developmental years, alters the brain’s ability to deal with anxiety and trauma as an adult.

    Many adults with childhood abuse, including mental / emotional abuse or neglect, have anxiety disorders as adults or develop PTSD from adult trauma.

  4. Reblogged this on NOT IN MY WORLD!!!! and commented:
    The out-of-control Violence in Our Country has to be addressed before any and all forms of Child Abuse can hope to be affected.
    The day when we as people wakeup and decide that Our Children should come before anything, and the defense of Our Country should be paramount also, is the day when laws will be enacted making it a felony for committing a Violent act in front of a Child and anywhere it can be witnessed by a Child.
    After a time, all forms of Child Abuse will began to decrease in frequency, and that includes Bullying, but Domestic Violence will also decrease proportionately, along with Elder Abuse school Violence, suicide, drug dependency, alcohol abuse, and all crime will drop to some extent.
    Now, you decide what is important to you….

  5. This post puts much of what seemed naturally who I am [and for the most part did not like about myself] into a very real perspective. It is a view I never was given the articulation to see and focus on. The remarks are making a very positive seal in my heart and with this sound articulation of thought, perhaps I can try to free myself from a very gripping issue, effacing my life.
    I do practice yoga and agree in many ways that it is an exercise of mind, body and soul in an interdependent relationship and in that awareness is a cleansing of the heart. Thank you for this post and I will look up this book. Peace.

  6. I always come by and leave a Link and a Thank You. I apologize, the StrongBow Women had to attend Lia’s oldest sister and 2 children, they were hit and run BAD, they were very Blessed. I have been by my lonely on the site, and the Google,Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Then Facebook “accidentally” dropped my connection.
    I had posted this when it came out, but I really enjoyed yours, I’ll do anything to shake these people out of their indifference.
    I’ll be by to catchup on your posts, and Thank You again!!!!

  7. Here’s some more data that may astound you. The night I was born, my mother’s doctor was late to the party and I was crowning. The nurses kept telling my mother to “hold on”, that the O.B. would be there “any minute.” This article may support the theory that I was traumatized at birth, and taught to fear before I had even entered the world.

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