Childhood emotional trauma can cause brain changes

Changes in the temporal lobe may cause temporal lobe epilepsy which can include a variety of symptoms that are less obvious than a seizure. Feelings of disorientation from temporal lobe epilepsy can include “mind-body dissociation—the feeling that one is watching one’s own actions as a detached observer.”

These studies suggest that child abuse may alter development of the left hippocampus permanently and, in so doing, cause deficits in verbal memory and dissociative symptoms that persist into adulthood. ”

The left hemisphere is specialized for perceiving and expressing language…

The research suggests that children who experience trauma may have lasting damage occur in their left temporal lobe which is a part of the brain that contains the smaller hippocampus. Temporal lobe epilepsy is uncommon but is more of a risk for children who suffered trauma of some sort. It doesn’t cause seizures that are as obvious as those that occur in other types of epilepsy. Diagnosis can be difficult also because the patient would need to be having an EEG performed while having a temporal lobe seizure.

Symptoms may include: “Because these areas constitute a sizable, varied part of the brain, TLE has a veritable catalog of possible symptoms, including sensory changes such as headache, tingling, numbness, dizziness, or vertigo; motor symptoms such as staring or twitching; or autonomic symptoms such as flushing, shortness of breath, nausea, or the stomach sensation of being in an elevator. TLE can cause hallucinations or illusions in any sense modality. Common visual illusions are of patterns, geometric shapes, flashing lights, or “Alice-in-Wonderlandlike” distortions of the sizes or shapes of objects. Other common hallucinations are of a ringing or buzzing sound or repetitive voice, a metallic or foul taste, an unpleasant odor, or the sensation of something crawling on or under the skin. Feelings of déjà vu (the unfamiliar feels familiar) or jamais vu (the familiar feels unfamiliar) are common, as is the sense of being watched or of mind-body dissociation—the feeling that one is watching one’s own actions as a detached observer. Emotional manifestations of temporal lobe seizures usually occur suddenly, without apparent cause, and cease as abruptly as they began; they include sadness, embarrassment, anger, explosive laughter (usually without feeling happy), serenity, and, quite often, fear.4

*I find this information interesting because I have had some of these symptoms in the past and my migraine headache pain was always greatest in the same spot on the left side of my head.

Ways to help protect the infant’s brain /may/ include rocking the baby (probably-gently) from side to side (based on animal research) as it seems to be calming for the brain’s cerebellar vermis which is a section that may help control electrical activity and prevent seizures. Infant rats who were handled by humans for just five minutes or those whose mother (rat) spontaneously licked and groomed them all showed lasting changes in their development,  behavior, and response to stress later in life.

ADHD like symptoms are common for people who had a childhood history of trauma and a smaller size of the cerebellar vermis is common in ADHD: “Interestingly, one of the most reliable neuroanatomical findings in ADHD is reduced size of the cerebellar vermis.”

Successful treatments are not that common which makes prevention of child abuse and neglect important for protecting children’s longterm quality of life. EMDR treatment is discussed in the article. I did find the cognitive therapy technique helpful for my own trauma history. The difficulty with traditional ‘talk therapy’ for issues that developed during early childhood is that verbal reasoning might not have been present when the trauma occurred. EMDR is a type of relaxation technique that can help the patient access deeper emotionally charged memories that aren’t based in words.

I wrote about the EMDR therapy technique in this post:  Talking about trauma with kids; PTSD, neural mapping, EMDR and reframing

Disclaimer: Opinions are my own and the information is provided for educational purposes within the guidelines of fair use. While I am a Registered Dietitian this information is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes.

People may need people and a sense of purpose for health and happiness

People and other species are social creatures whose survival may have been dependent on being part of a group rather than being isolated. Loneliness has been associated with increased inflammation and a reduced resistance to infection by viral diseases. Genetic changes have been found to occur in isolated individuals that lead to the increased inflammatory response in comparison to individuals who have more social support. Our instincts have developed to trust that being part of a group increases our chance of survival. Having a role that fulfills a valued purpose for the group is associated with an increased sense of happiness.

Fitting into groups well can take social skills that need to be nurtured from birth. Infants learn body language at an early age by interacting with a parent who responds to the baby’s cues. If the baby smiles the mother smiles back and the baby learns to smile more readily. If the baby has a mother that doesn’t notice body language though, then the infant may stop smiling as often. Infants and children depend on their caregivers for everything and try to please with their smiles, eye contact, or baby coos. If the infant isn’t receiving eye contact in return however they may stop trying or are scolded they may learn to look away and to avoid eye contact.

Children ideally need emotional support in order to develop trust in themselves and in others. Parents who have limited skills in understanding and accepting their own emotions may not be able to teach their children what they don’t understand themselves. Children who have some role model in their lives who understands emotional skills may cope better than children who don’t.

The topic is discussed in more detail in the book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents, by Lindsay C. Gibson, PsyD, (New Harbinger Pub., Inc., 2015, Oaklnad, CA) [1] (This book is not a twelve step book and is not affiliated with the Adult Children of Alcoholic or Dysfunctional Parents twelve step group.) An excerpt from page 108:

“Why is emotional connection so crucial?

According to neuroscientist Stephen Porges (2011), mammals have evolved a unique coping instinct in which they are calmed by proximity or engagement with others. Instead of just having the involuntary stress reactions of fight, flight, or freeze, like reptiles do, mammals can calm their heart rate and reduce the physical costs of stress by seeking reassuring contact with others of their kind. Certain vagus nerve pathways in mammals have evolved to allow stress hormones and heart rate to be reduced by confronting in such forms as physical closeness, touch, soothing sounds, and even eye contact. These calming effects conserve valuable energy and also create pleasurable social bonds that promote strong groups.

For all mammals, including humans, something magical happens when this desire to seek comfort switches on. The danger might not go away, but individuals can stay relatively calm as long as they feel tied into their herd, pack, or circle of loved ones. Most mammals have stressful lives, but thanks to their instinct for engaging with others, calming comfort and restored energy are just a friendly contact away. This gives mammals a tremendous advantage over other animals when it comes to dealing with stress in an energy-efficient way, since they don’t have to go into fight, flight, or freeze every time they sense a threat.” [1]

So a sense of connection to others can help reduce the negative inflammatory effects of the stress response. Some stress can be healthy to help get us moving to meet whatever challenge has occurred. Stress may become more overwhelming however if the person is isolated or never learned social skills or trust enough to ask for help or seek out help. Children in situations with emotionally immature caregivers may learn that people around them can’t be trusted or that trying doesn’t lead to success so why bother trying — they can learn  a sense of helplessness and hopelessness rather than finding strength from others.

The book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents, by Lindsay C. Gibson [1] describes  four different types of emotionally immature caregivers, how growing up with them might affect children and how the children might overcome the lessons they learned later in life as adults who only just discovered that emotions aren’t dangerous things to never be discussed or worse that one might be punished for exhibiting. Some emotionally immature people may feel threatened by strong emotions and may react negatively to children who are simply being children. The child in that situation learns to not trust themselves and may not learn that emotions are normal rather than upsetting or frightening.

Severe childhood trauma can lead to changes in the brain that cause ongoing symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). A new strategy for treating PTSD has been developed which involves electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve called Vagal nerve stimulation (VNS).  Which the excerpt from the book [1]  suggests is the nerve pathway that naturally is stimulated when social contact is sought during a stressful situation.

Stress and trauma have been too readily available lately. More police officers were shot today in the U.S. in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Three are injured, one critically, and three officers were killed Sunday morning. The gunman was a former marine who drove there from his home in Missouri. The gunman was killed at the scene. Further information about his possible motives are not known at this time. Whether there were any accomplices is not known but it is believed he was a lone gunman and there has been no further shooting in the area.

My condolences and best wishes to the families, friends, and coworkers of the slain officers, may they rest in peace, and to the community of Baton Rouge

Emotionally immature parents may raise emotionally immature children who grow up to raise their own emotionally immature children. Help break the trauma cycle by reading the book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents, by Lindsay C. Gibson [1]. Whether you are a parent or a teen or an adult learning more about emotional maturity and immaturity can help understand your own emotions and others. Whatever we grow up with will seem normal to us and as adults we tend to seek out similar relationships to those we were familiar with as children — but sometimes what seems normal to some people isn’t normal for everyone else and there is no need to continue living in abusive situations just because it seemed like a normal part of life as a child.

Lack of emotional skills may increase the risk of acting inappropriately when under severe stress. People need the support of people to help reduce negative effects of stress and increase a sense of connection and purpose. People need to learn emotional skills from people who have emotional skills  — or sometimes from a book. [1]

Disclaimer: Opinions are my own and the information is provided for educational purposes within the guidelines of fair use. While I am a Registered Dietitian this information is not intended to provide individual health guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes.

Talking about trauma with kids; PTSD, neural mapping, EMDR and reframing

/This article was originally posted on March 21, 2011. It is still important to have open conversations with children about traumatic events or other information they may find confusing, troubling or frightening. EMDR therapy can be helpful for adults with PTSD./
We all need comfort and we gain it from sharing our burdens, talking about troubles and letting out worries. Listening is more important than talking – let kids talk to you about trauma – we don’t know what they are thinking or are worried about until we let them talk it out. Don’t worry too much about “how to talk about it”, pause, listen, and accept – “yes, there are worries but we’ll stick together and work through it”, is a strong message for all of us to hear.
Children and all of us have “hot” emotional memories centered in the amygdala and milder long term factual memories stored more generally throughout the neocortex. Electrical activity of the brain can be recorded and associated with the topic being considered. The amygdala centered emotional memory can be tied to smells, sounds, places or people and can be unexpectedly triggered leaving the person with panic attack type symptoms unique to the individual’s memories of the early traumatic event.

Douglas Buchanon described neural mapping in his blog “Follow the Neurons – Your Life Map” [TheGatesofHorn].Neural mapping is a bit like playing with a line of toy dominos. The designers spend hours placing the dominos in line, each the perfect distance and angle from the last, carefully balanced on end and poised for any slight shock to send the entire chain tumbling down. Emotional memories may be triggered by something like a car door slamming shut. A toddler memory may be submerged regarding something as trivial as mom and dad fighting over who has to carry in the groceries and the car doors were slammed shut violently. To a toddler the words may not mean as much as the tone and the violent sounds.

After the event, immediately, and maybe later that day, the next day, the next week – the toddler may pester with questions of what is wrong and what did I do to cause that fight? The child’s world is centered around themselves – natural while young but prone to self blame. The memory can be stored with feelings of “I caused that arguement – I am a bad person – I don’t deserve attention or explanation” and so on. If their worries are left unanswered or are denied as real then the hot memory is ignored and is left unprocessed, instead it is pushed down and forgotten at the daily level. A car door slamming with a combination of shouting voices might trigger a panic attack though.

The hot memory can be toned down and moved to long term storage if time is allowed to discuss the event – and more than once. It might pop up in the toddler’s chit chat daily, and then weekly, monthly, and maybe even over the years if it was bad enough triggering event. Once the connection is made though, (negative event associated with a negative symptom) and discussed, usually the power of the slamming/shouting sound is reduced and similar events in the future may not trigger a panic attack or it might  be a milder reaction.

Children are absorbing knowledge and building their neural pathways – good habits and bad habits are learned by watching the people they love and trust. Spending a few minutes whenever possible to listen to children share their worries allows them to move the memories from the ‘hot’ button zone of the amygdala, to the mellower long-term storage of the neocortex.

Symptoms of PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, can be effectively reframed  and reduced using cognitive therapy techniques like EMDR. A problem or trigger event is visualized and then a state of deep relaxation is reached and the memory is discussed or pondered with guidance from the therapist. New insights from the perspective of the adult framing of the situation can be considered and then the relaxation method is repeated using the new perspective.  The neural maps of the traumatic events can be reached  from a deeply relaxed state of theta waves. EMDR, attempts to help the patient reach the theta state with rapid stimulation of the right side then left side of the brain, either visually with a moving hand or object, or with sound or a vibration buzz in the palm of the hand. Children under seven are already living in this more meditative level of consciousness. In the zone – flow time – playing like a child – we could all use a little relaxed theta time these days and a chance to free a little worry from the hot zone of the amygdala.

The world is changing but denying reality never solves problems it only pushes them down to a submerged hot zone. When we talk about our troubles then we can look for solutions and change. Denying problems, denies a chance for change.

Art therapy can be a useful way to give children and anyone freedom to explore feelings – color to feel not to produce. Playdough and other free form play can help reach a relaxed state where gentle talk about hot topics can be released  as they surface. Picking at the problem with needling questions may not be as quick as open ended play time. Adults may find a walk or bike ride their ticket to free flow brain time.

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  1. Terrorism, and talking to kids about catastrophic mass violence, guidance sheets from The National Child Tramatic Stress Network [nctsnet.org/trauma-types/terrorism]
  2. by Carol Boulware, MFT, PhD, “EMDR Therapy, EMDR Therapists, EMDR information, PTSD,” [emdr-therapy.com/].
  3. by Carol Boulware, MFT, PhD, “EMDR-Breakthrough Therapy for Overcoming Anxiety, Stress,Trauma and Self-Sabotage,” [emdr-therapy.com].
  4. by Carol Boulware, MFT, PhD, “Do I Have Anxiety Needing Therapy?” a discussion about anxiety and PTSD focused on adults [emdr-therapy]
  5. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network [nctsnet.org/]
  6. Trauma and Your Family – a guidance factsheet from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network pdf: [nctsn.org]
  7. by Tanya Anderson, PTSD in Children and Adolescents, Great Cities Institute, GCP-05-04, November, 2005  pdf: [uic.edu]
  8. This website is a non-profit 12 step based program for the Adult Children Of Alcoholic (or Dysfunctional) Families. PTSD and neural mapping aren’t discussed but the symptom list includes similar problems: The Laundry List – 14 Traits of an Adult Child of an Alcoholic (or Dysfunctional Family) ,  [adultchildren.org]
/Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes and is not intended to provide individual health care guidance. Please see a health professional for individual health care purposes./