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  • Writer's pictureAli Howarth

The long lasting impacts of trauma.

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

There is a vast range of traumas that can happen to a person. There is accidental trauma, such as a car accident; grief trauma, as you experience with the death of a loved one or loss of a relationship; interpersonal trauma where one person is abusive to another person. Interpersonal abuse can take the form of physical, sexual, verbal, emotional or financial violence.

Interpersonal trauma that happens in childhood has long reaching and profound effects on the developing brain. And when a child’s brain is impacted by traumatic stress the brain may keep sending signals to the body to escape a threat that no longer exists, long after the actual event has passed, and into adulthood.

For the non-traumatised brain, the healthy stress hormones will spike and then decrease as soon as the threat is passed, but for those people with trauma in their history the hormones take much longer to return to normal levels. In fact, being reminded of the trauma can spike the stress hormones to such an extent that the person feels that they are physically experiencing the trauma again, with all the helplessness and terror of the original; so remembering the event can be as horrifying as experiencing the traumatic event itself.

One of the reasons for this, for example, is the situation where a child has experienced an adverse event. The event releases stress chemicals into the brain, and especially in the case of chronic or complex ongoing trauma, can result in a lack of development in the prefrontal cortex itself – which is the part of our brain which contains logical thought, tells good from bad and structures impulse control, just to name a few.

Trauma impact alters the structure of the brain.

This alteration of the brain structure is often accompanied by a constant state of hyper-vigilance, a constant state of alert as if the person are always under threat of attack. Because of this constant state of alert, they will respond to a stressful event or stressful memory more quickly than someone who has not experienced that childhood stress. This underscores the importance of trauma informed practice, where we ask: “What has happened to this person?” rather than “What is wrong with this person?”

What is often forgotten about trauma impact is the effect on people’s physical health. These effects can include memory and attention problems, irritability, and sleep disorders. They also contribute to many long-term health issues, depending on which body system is most vulnerable in a particular individual.

Some people are vulnerable to addictions such as food, drugs or alcohol, or even self-harming behaviours like cutting or eating disorders. These can all provide temporary relief and/or distraction from distress. The relief feels good and lights up the reward circuits in the brain increasing the chances of the behaviour being repeated, or even becoming a habit. Childhood trauma will also impact the world view of the person. For example: people who have experienced adverse childhood events will often expect bad things to happen; they will catastrophise more.

While normal memories fade and change, traumatic memories are vivid, unchanging and easily triggered – and can be triggered by something unrelated like a colour, a smell or a tone of voice. But memories are not our reality now – they are perceptions of the past. It’s important to realise that what we remember has far less impact than how we remember it. The historical event is ended. It is now only our judgment and perception of it that truly remains.

It is important to remember that physical and emotional brain pathways created by trauma impact can be healed and transformed into healthy behaviours and pathways. The brain is incredibly resilient and with the right support, people can reduce, recover and transcend the impact of trauma in their lives.

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