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What Are The Effects Of Trauma On The Brain?




8 Key Points for Recovery and Good News from Neuroscience

Adapted from the Blue Knot Foundation Foundation’s Practice Guidelines for Treatment of Complex Trauma and Trauma Informed Care and Service Delivery

“The structure and functioning of the mind and brain are shaped by experiences, especially those involving emotional relationships. The implications in terms of the impact of adverse experience – as for potential healing of such impact – are profound.” p55 BKF Practice Guidelines

Research in recent decades has established that the brain is neurologically plastic rather than what was believed in past decades i.e. that the brain was hard wired.

We now know that neurons can grow and repair – the brain changes with different experiences. Just as damaging experiences can cause negative impacts on nerve pathways so new positive experiences can promote healing. Changes can occur across the lifespan – neuroplasticity means the possibility for ongoing neural growth.

Neuroscience research illuminates the role of social and environmental impacts from the moment of birth, and even before. Life experiences actively influence and shape us via neural networks in the brain.

There is the critical and sensitive period very early in life when the ‘right’ brain or ‘emotional’ brain development is more dominant than the left ‘cognitive’ or ‘thinking’ brain. Effective right brain development is dependent on early attachment experience, particularly although not exclusively with the primary caregiver. The child’s attachment experience is crucial to a person’s sense of self and subsequent experience of trust, safety and the ability to empathise.

If early attachment experiences are not favourable, neural development and integration will be disrupted and this can impact many areas of a child’s development and well being. For example, right brain development is important for the crucial capacity to regulate self – emotions, levels of arousal and behaviours. Supporting survivors to feel safe and develop the capacity to regulate their self is a particularly important part of trauma recovery work.

When a child has to focus on psychological and physical survival the brain is less able to spend time and energy on other crucial developmental tasks. In neuroscientific terms the child stays mostly within a ‘survival brain’ and less within a ‘learning brain’. This means that the child is more susceptible to ongoing traumatic stress, is less able to establish secure relationships, and finds it hard to feel safe and self-regulate. These challenges can persist into adulthood if the child, adolescent and adult don’t receive the support needed for recovery. .

There is a burgeoning field of research on trauma recovery showing the way that the brain changes over time – positively. Knowing about this radically changes the way survivors can understand their own recovery journeys and how trauma specialists can support recovery for trauma survivors of all ages.

Blue Knot Foundation delivers training to help build the capacity of professionals and other personnel in supporting recovery. It also offers educational workshops for adult survivors of childhood trauma, as well as for their family, friends, partners and loved ones. These full day workshops provide information and self-care strategies to support participants on their personal journey of recovery; or for family, friends and partners, strategies to support their loved ones while caring for themselves. Details on these workshops will be released in Breaking Free.

What are the effects of Trauma on the Brain?

8 Key Points

Adapted from the Blue Knot Foundation Fact Sheet Towards Recovery

1. *** It is possible to heal from childhood trauma. Research shows that with the right support, even severe early life trauma can be resolved. It also shows that when an adult has resolved their childhood trauma, it benefits their children.

2. *** Survivors of childhood abuse and trauma are often on `high alert’. Even minor stress can trigger seemingly `out of proportion’ responses. Your body can continue to react as if you are still in danger, and this can be explained as a ‘normal’ response to unresolved early adverse experiences.

3. *** Coping mechanisms develop for a reason, serve a purpose, most commonly to help with self-regulation and can be highly effective in the short term. But some methods of coping (e.g. excessive alcohol use) can be risky, addictions (to food, sex, drugs), avoidance of contact with others (which reinforces isolation) and compulsive behaviours of various kinds can become problematic over time.

4. *** Replacing unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthy ones is a very important part of healing but can also be very challenging. It is not about ‘will power alone’. Rather it is an ongoing process in which appropriate counselling and support can be of enormous value.

5. *** The recovery process involves several components, which can include positive relationships with others as well as counselling or therapy. Best practice therapy for childhood (`complex’) trauma takes place in a number of phases, which don’t necessarily occur in strict order. Phase 1 is about safety and feeling more stable internally, Phase 2 is about being able to `process’ the trauma/s and Phase 3 is about adjusting to `life after trauma’. The ability to manage your internal states and develop self regulation skills (Phase 1) is central to all aspects of recovery.

6. *** Basic knowledge of the brain can assist the recovery process. From `top down’, the brain comprises the cortex (thinking, reflective capacity), limbic system (emotions) and brain stem (arousal states; includes `survival’ responses). Under stress, `lower’ (brain stem) responses dominate (flow `bottom up’) and limit ability to be calm, reflect, and respond flexibly.

7. *** Survivors are vulnerable to overwhelm from lower brain stem responses (`easily triggered’). But everyone can experience stress, which restricts `higher brain’ functioning. This is not `personal weakness’, but how the brain functions (it is just more marked for survivors). A range of soothing and stabilising strategies, which different people find useful, are helpful.

8. *** Putting supports in place when embarking on the recovery process is important. You can call the Blue Knot Helpline on 1300 657 380 (EST 9.00am – 5.00pm seven days) for short-term professional counselling support, information and referrals.

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