Young Adults With Childhood Trauma: New Research on PTSD and Changes of the Mind

A sudden traumatic experience in early childhood can create long term changes in the brain. Recent research suggests that trauma such as physical or sexual abuse can affect our bodies and minds in ways we could not have predicted, and it raises the need for treatment of PTSD.

Whenever we read about or hear of a story involving child abuse, people often feel repulsed and horrified with how someone could harm a child. In seeking to understand what makes people harm others, many therapists and mental health professionals often struggle with the possibility that the perpetrator was a victim themselves, or that a recent victim of abuse is at high risk of becoming a perpetrator themselves unless they get treatment. Therapists specializing in trauma work with people of all ages to resolve how trauma is affecting their lives, which includes difficulty in having relationships, drug addiction, and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). PTSD is commonly observed and evidenced by a loved one seeing threats where there are none, overreacting to situations, and being triggered in emotional distress by everyday things.

Research in Switzerland by behavioral geneticists has pointed out that early traumatic experiences can actually cause long term effects in the brain that exhibit in aggressive behavior in adulthood. This is an important finding when also taking into account how social learning may result in abused children being at risk of being aggressive as they grow up. Research conducted in a study placed rats in stressful and fear-inducing situations during puberty and showed high levels of aggression later in life. The scared rats used in the study showed changes in brain activity, hormone levels, and genetic expression that are eerily similar to traits being observed among troubled and violent people with a history of childhood abuse. The adult rats showed increased aggression toward other rats that weren’t aggressive, and the traumatized rats showed signs of anxiety and depression such as a lack of interaction with other rats, low interest in food, and being passive and freezing when faced with a challenge.

The study shows that childhood trauma can affect how the brain is wired and how traumatic experiences can cause long lasting changes in children’s brains. The human brain functions in a way that allows it to be rewired, so that people can adapt and survive threats experienced both in the past and possibly in the future. Unfortunately it also results in genetic alterations such as how the brain functions and the risk for certain diseases. Genetic alterations are being researched in cases of PTSD with a history of childhood abuse, researchers found that how the brain functions changes and the risk for certain diseases increases. For example, studies are showing that people with a history of childhood trauma respond less to anti-depressant medication. Medication alone is not effective in resolving the root of the problem, which is the trauma that was experienced. Until it can be talked about and explored in a safe and supportive way, there are many that may continue to suffer.

Understanding how much of an impact trauma can have in a person’s life, raises the question of what treatments are effective in preventing long lasting effects. Evidenced based approaches in therapy such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) focus on processing memories of trauma so that a person doesn’t have to struggle with feelings when the memory is brought up. Another widely used approach utilized by many mental health professionals is TF-CBT (Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), which helps children and teens overcome beliefs involving guilt and blame, while providing a supportive environment for children to talk about their traumatic experience. TF-CBT is effective in also assisting parents (not abusive) to cope with their own distress and to develop skills to support their child or teen. The more people become aware of how childhood trauma affects brain development and behavior in life, the more likely they are to seek treatment.

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