“Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.”
The human brain is a social organ that is shaped by experience; it's a profoundly relational part of our body, especially in the formative years. So childhood trauma literally shapes your brain for the rest of your life...
Childhood abuse has been shown to specifically effect
i) Ventral pre frontal cortex - the part of the brain that allows you to observe yourself, where you know what's going on inside of you. In effect, it is our watchtower.
ii) Orbitel pre frontal cortex - the part of your brain that helps you not to become impulsive.
iii) Amygdala- the smoke detector of the brain that tells you what is dangerous and what is safe. It knows nothing about reasoning or cognitive functions. It deals with feelings and emotions.
iv) Dorsolateral cortex – the part of the brain that gives you the capacity to see yourself over time, combining past with the future.
v) Precuneus - the part of your brain that worries about yourself.
vi) Anterior cingulate - the part of the brain that filters out irrelevant information.
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. If as a child you are frightened and unwanted, your brain specialises in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.
Trauma is thus a kinesthetic experience; it is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. It as an illness of not being alive in the present as this imprint has ongoing consequences for how we manage to survive in the present. Trauma creates chaos in our brain.
Once traumatised a person perceives the world differently so the question to therapists is how do we assist our clients to heal their nervous systems so that their perception of danger or safety is more accurate?
It is very interesting that mindfulness increases activation of the medial prefrontal cortex and decreases activation of structures like the amygdala that trigger our emotional responses. This increases our control over the emotional brain and is one way we can start to utilise the neuro-plasticity of our brains for our benefit.
There is still much being learnt in this area, but to me anything that makes a person feel safer in the present moment (breath, body work, nature, stillness) will go a long way towards helping to antidote the physiological impacts of childhood trauma on our brains. We can rewire, it is just going to take time, patience and space...