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.

Life paths begin at birth

Our experiences during infancy and early childhood can set us on a path with open communication and understanding of our moods and feelings or leave us in the dark. Difficult conversations are something that the author, Alice Miller, had to have with herself for decades before many others in the academic world joined in. Early childhood experiences teach us wordless lessons that may positively or negatively affect our habits throughout our daily lives.

Alice Miller trained and worked in the field of psychoanalysis  in Switzerland and then dedicated herself to writing books since 1980. She shares stories of fictional people in the book, Paths of Life; Seven Scenarios (1998). [1] The stories are written as if told by real people but are of composite characters representing real life issues experienced by many people. The people within the scenarios talk openly about some of the difficulties that too many infants and children have to live through but who may never have gotten a chance to voice out loud. Reading about the struggles that others survived and learned from can help put a voice to personal issues that may have been lingering wordlessly since one’s own childhood.

“But if we don’t go out on a limb ourselves, we’ll never find out what others are capable of. Addressing difficult subjects squarely can sometimes make the unexpected happen. Or not, as the case may be. There are lots of people who give the impression of being open and are very good at talking, but they’ll start panicking immediately if they’re asked to leave the fortress they’ve built around themselves. They can’t imagine surviving without that kind of protection.”

– Alice Miller [1, Paths of Life, p 51]

The scenarios created and shared by Alice Miller help to break through some of the more common fortress walls that may have been built in early childhood or from later traumatic experiences. Scenarios from traumatic childbirths and descriptions of more positive experiences of childbirth and lactation are also shared.

{Disclosure – I’m only on page 51 so far, and it’s a great book.  She has written other great books on the topic of empowering children of all ages, such as The Drama of the Gifted Child, [2], Breaking Down the Wall of Silence, [3], and Banished Knowledge, [4].}

*Having completed the book does not change my opinion that it is a great book worth reading but I will add that while the words are easy to read the topics are challenging to consider emotionally and intellectually. Not talking about difficult events in personal or world history is more likely to lead to history repeating itself in future generations. Dictators and the possibility that parenting styles and early child experiences may leave people more susceptible to following an authoritarian leader as adults is discussed in one of the chapters.

History is more likely to repeat if we deny it happened or fail to discuss it and learn from it.

This article reviews a book that looks at how Hitler and the Nazi movement may have formulated some of their policies on discriminatory laws that existed at the time in the U.S. at the state level.

/Disclaimer: This 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./


Values learned in childhood may need to be relearned as an adult

Some right and wrong or good and bad exist in most situations. Decisions usually are made from a variety of choices that each contain a mix of some good and bad aspects. The expected outcome from a decision can’t be known ahead of time; expected results can only be estimated based on results from previous situations that were similar or by making guesses. Focusing on what is good or bad or right or wrong about the choices is helpful but that more realistically becomes a question of right for who and wrong for who? and how right or how wrong for those individuals or groups of people?.

Internal values provide guidance for the choices we make. Understanding how our values developed from childhood and how those internalized values can affect our daily actions is discussed in the book Integrity:  Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason (2007). Ideas are included to help improve recognition of why some behavior habits seem harder to change then others and ideas for tackling those tougher choices are provided. Internalized values learned as a child may not match society’s expectations of morality. What was accepted as ‘good’ behavior in the childhood environment often remains the typical pattern of behavior later in life even if the early childhood habits are no longer helpful.

A child that suffers from emotional or physical neglect or abuse in their family home may learn to hate themselves and love their family members because their physical and emotional survival depends on their family. In a way the child is trying to make sense out of their world and are trying to be in agreement with the people in their lives. Victims or prisoners in an abusive or captive situation have also been known to develop a strong emotional bond with their captors. The condition became known as Stockholm Syndrome since 1973 when the behavior pattern was seen after a hostage situation. The victim’s survival may seem to depend on the good or bad mood of the person in control. Anticipating and pleasing the controlling person may seem self protective for the victim.

Children who grew up in emotionally neglectful or abusive situations may not have learned more typical, healthy ways to behave or communicate with others. Severe illness during early childhood also may affect behavior patterns later in life. Dissociation or detaching the mind from feelings is a natural reaction to pain that can become a more frequent reaction for some people. The child from a dysfunctional upbringing may not realize that their sense of normal doesn’t match the average person’s definition of normal. Two children from similar dysfunctional backgrounds might understand each other as adults better than they understand other people. They may help provide emotional support for each other that they hadn’t received as young children. As a team, the grown up children may be emotionally stronger together than they are as separate individuals. The idea of breaking up such a team before they are each individually ready might feel like it would be neglectful or dangerous to the safety of the individuals, (in a way that has nothing to do with the Stockholm Syndrome that has been seen in hostage situations, instead the children learned the behavior patterns of someone with Stockholm Syndrome from what they experienced while growing up in their own childhood home).

Skills and abilities are not handed out in evenly balanced amounts. Working with others or within a team helps provide a variety of skills from the whole group which can help balance gaps in individual ability or knowledge. Communication with others is important for revealing where improvement might be needed within oneself or within a team’s set of skills. Sharing can help with growth of skills. We don’t know what we don’t know or what skills might be missing until after we’ve learned about the lack through experience or from a more experienced guide.

Skills and abilities are a gift from birth and from education.

Advocating for the mental health rights of children and survivors of childhood abuse could help save money and empower lives. Medications and talk therapy may not treat or reveal the underlying problems with communication learned in childhood. Screening questions for problems associated with dysfunctional behavior exist but may be infrequently used. For some conditions like depersonalization disorder, a problem seen in survivors of child abuse and in workaholics, education about the condition typically helps more than medications, but screening and accurate diagnosis are needed first.

A few other books are listed below which may be helpful for recognizing and recovering from mental health and behavioral issues:

  1. Steinberg, M., and Schnall M., The Stranger in the Mirror: Dissociation-The Hidden Epidemic, (Quill, 2003, New York, NY) [Amazon}
  2. Sanderson, C., Counselling Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, Third Ed., (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2006, London, UK) [Amazon]  *This book is written for counselors about counseling and is not intended as a self help book.
  3. Williams, D., Exposure Anxiety-The Invisible Cage; An Exploration of Self-Protection Responses in the Autism Spectrum and Beyond, (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2003, London, UK) [] *The author has professional and personal experience with avoidance behaviors seen in people with autism and discusses a variety of coping skills for caregivers and ideas are included for use in educational group settings. Excerpt: “The friendly person caught up in involuntary avoidance responses appears uninterested, cold, and unfriendly. The person capable of intense interest and focus who gets caught up in diversion responses can seem like a clown who never takes anything seriously. The accepting, empathic person caught up in retaliation responses can appear insensitive and selfish.” (p180)
  4. Butler G., and Hope T., Managing Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide, (Oxford University Press, 1995, Oxford or New York) [2007 edition, Amazon]

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.