The Effects of Trauma on Brain Function
The effects of trauma on brain function
The effects of trauma on brain function are not insignificant. Developmental trauma, or trauma that happens during early childhood, can significantly impact a person’s ability regulate emotion and behavior. It also alters memory and cognitive functions and delays frontal lobe development that is responsible for logical thinking, problem-solving, and cause and effect thinking. The effects of trauma on the brain are even greater if a child was also prenatally exposed to alcohol. Trauma and alcohol cause permanent long-term brain damage and injury.
In order to truly understand the effects of trauma on brain function, we first need to understand how the brain is supposed to work.
The brain is a superhighway
The brain is designed to work like an information superhighway. Information travels in and out of processing centers called synapses in a smooth, streamlined way. Those information carriers are specialized nerve cells called neurons. Neurons gather information from the environment and from the rest of the body, transfers it to the brain for processing, and then sends that information where it needs to go to make the body do what it’s supposed to do.
The network of channels information moves through are called neural pathways. The synapses are the junction points between the neurons. They are the transfer stations, or control centers. Their job is to relay the information that comes to them to the next appropriate neuron for processing and transmission.
The brain forms early and grows quickly!
The brain begins forming very quickly after conception and grows at an incredible pace. In fact, the brain begins forming within three weeks of conception! Its physical shape and structure that last throughout one’s life are in place just seven weeks after conception. During the prenatal period, there are times that close to 250,000 neurons are added to the brain every single minute.
Kids’ brains are like sponges!
Kids’ brains are like sponges. They soak up everything around them, both for better and for worse. During the early years, children learn at a tremendously fast pace. The neural pathways that are laid during this time become the foundation for learning and thinking for the rest of their life.
The time between conception and about three years old is absolutely critical for proper brain development. What the child is exposed to and what they experience during this time sticks for life. Positive experiences and connection during infancy and early childhood have a huge impact on a child’s ability to learn. They also boost that child’s chances for achievement, success, happiness, and being able to create and sustain healthy and fulfilling relationships throughout the rest of their life.
Young brains are susceptible to damage
Because kids’ brains grow so quickly, they are particularly susceptible to damage, especially from trauma and alcohol exposure. Children are especially sensitive and vulnerable to the negative and traumatic experiences that happen to them. The younger they are when those things occur, the greater the risk there is for long-term damage.
What goes in gets hardwired!
Remember, what goes into a child’s brain is what gets hardwired. When a child experiences trauma during their early years, it significantly changes the way the brain and its processes develop. Instead of brain development happening in a smooth and systematic way, everything becomes a jumbled, tangled mess. Some connections are there, others are missing, others end up in the wrong place, and developmental milestones are often missed along the way.
Early childhood trauma — especially things like abuse, neglect, abandonment, alcohol and drug exposure, removal from the home, or incarceration of a parent — that happens during this critical development period has a significant and lifelong effect on how the child’s brain develops and functions for the rest of their life.
Kids who experienced trauma don’t think the same way we do!
Kids who experienced significant trauma during their early years of life simply don’t think the same way we do. They don’t perceive the world the same way we do. They don’t understand things the same way we do. They often don’t even have any frame of reference to understand very simple and very common things that make perfect sense to us.
The long term effects of trauma on their brain will show up in their behavior, their relationships, and their ability to attach to anyone. It will also affect language skills, belief systems, and their ability to learn and to use information.
In real life, you might see this play out as constant crazy, over-the-top behavior. More often than not, the behaviors make no sense to us and the kids don’t seem to learn from their mistakes. Unfortunately, there is a reason for that. Due to their mixed-up brain wiring, all that stuff they do makes absolutely perfect sense to them.
Parts of the brain most affected by trauma
There are two parts of the brain that are particularly affected by trauma. One is the front lobe (or prefrontal cortex) and the other is the limbic system. The prefrontal lobe is that largest section of the brain in the front above the eyes, and the limbic system is the middle part of the brain represented below in pink.
The Limbic System
This area is often referred to as the reptilian or primitive part of the brain because it’s one of the first parts to form. It’s also known as the feeling or survival center of the brain. This system is a set of interconnected brain structures that all have their own unique functions. They’re all related because of anatomy and because of how they’re wired together, but each part does its own job. All the players in the limbic system, including the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and basal ganglia are responsible for governing emotional responsiveness, memory formation and storage, controlling the endocrine system, and sensory input. They are also very connected to the front lobe of the brain.
The Prefrontal Cortex
The frontal lobe is known as the thinking center of the brain. This part of the brain controls logic, reasoning, judgment, impulse control, emotional expression, the ability to understand social cues, problem-solving, personality, attention management, communication, voluntary movement, and a whole lot more. It has a very big job to do!
Th prefrontal cortex is also one of the most easily damaged parts of the brain, both by injury and by substance exposure (especially alcohol.) Even in a healthy, normally functioning human, this is the last part of the brain to fully mature. Even under ideal circumstances, the frontal lobe doesn’t fully mature until a person is in their mid-twenties.
Have you ever wondered why young male drivers are so expensive to insure? Well, this is why!
The effects of trauma on the limbic system
Let’s talk first about the effects of trauma on the limbic system. In a nutshell, the whole system goes into overdrive and become stuck in the “always on” position. In other words, it becomes very hypersensitive.
Fight or Flight
One of the most noticeable things is a distorted fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is our body’s natural warning system. It senses danger, puts us in overdrive, and then we calm down when we realized nothing’s there.
Well, that isn’t the case for our kids. Their system gets stuck in “crisis” mode where everything looks and feels like an emergency to them. In real life, it looks to us like extreme hypervigilance or always scanning their environment to make sure they’re safe. Or, depending on how they perceive a potential threat, they might also have a tendency to flop and freeze or to panic or give up when things are even just a little bit hard.
Trauma also creates fractured and intrusive memories. When a traumatic experience is too overwhelming to fully process, the memories surrounding it don’t get properly stored or processed. They become like little shards of glass in the brain that poke and scratch at everything else. Trauma memories aren’t subject to normal recall and processing and they are rarely ever complete. However, they are still very real and terrifying to the person experiencing them, even if they don’t have any context around them. Kids especially have little or no ability to control them, stop them, or even make sense of them.
The effects of trauma also create hyperactive responses to sensory input. You’ve probably noticed that most of our kids are very easily overstimulated. They don’t have the ability to process all of the sensory information coming in. In order to cope with it, kids will often respond with extremes on either end of the behavior spectrum. Some kids are very, very sensory seeking and cannot get enough input. Others are sensory avoidant and have little or no tolerance for any type of sensory input.
The final impact is the impaired endocrine function, otherwise known as hormone production. These hormones are necessary for regulating growth, metabolism, sexual development and function. Depending on what messages are being sent…and remember that broken messages are being sent through a broken system…we might see over or underproduction in any or all of these areas.
The effects of trauma on cognitive function
Now let’s look at how trauma affects the frontal lobe of the brain. In short, both trauma and alcohol exposure stunt, shut down, and impair all cognitive functions.
Remember, the prefrontal cortex is the thinking center of the brain that’s normally slow to develop anyway. When trauma happens, that process slows down even more and then shoots holes through it. Because of the circumstances that our kids were once in, it is also quite common for them to also have missed developmental steps and milestones that are necessary for correct progress and processing.
Trauma increased opportunity for miswiring
Remember what I said about young kids having double the number of synapses of an adult? Well, when we’re talking about the effect of trauma on the brain, the more synapses and connections there are, the greater the chance for miswiring and misfiring. Especially if a child lived in a prolonged or intense traumatic environment, the trauma gets hardwired instead of the positive flows of information that we expect.
Ability to manage stress
Kids who experienced developmental trauma are also very sensitive to change and stress. They need a much longer response and processing time in order to understand what’s even going on. As that front lobe of the brain shuts down response, we often see poor logic, reasoning, judgment, impulse control, and problem-solving abilities. This is especially true if there was prenatal alcohol exposure.
Most kids who have experienced trauma also have an impaired ability to process, understand, or regulate emotions. This is why a kid can go from 0 to 120 in the blink of an eye. They don’t understand their own emotions. They don’t understand other people’s emotions, they don’t readily understand or pick up on social cues either, and they have precious little ability to regulate any of it. In fact, they often have no clue how they’re “supposed to be” acting.
Ability to focus
Many kids also have an impaired ability to manage attention. ADHD and sensory processing symptoms and even diagnoses are fairly common among children who have experienced trauma. Especially when it comes to ADHD, it is important to remember that that is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s also the one that most doctors seem to know the most about, too. However, treating it alone, either with medication or behavior modification doesn’t work very well, if at all. You’ve got to get the whole picture in the mix and you’ve got to treat all parts of that picture!
It’s not about the kids!
As we look at all this stuff, and as we live with the realities of all this stuff, it is so important to remember that none of this is a choice our kids are making. They didn’t choose what happened to them. They didn’t ask for it to happen. They didn’t deserve what happened to them.
It’s all about very real brain damage that was caused by trauma. and is made worse if there is substance exposure involved. They aren’t doing what they do to purposely torment you. Our kids are just trying to survive in a world that doesn’t make sense to them and the doesn’t understand them.
They are also not without hope.
Brains can be rebuilt. They can be rewired, new neural pathways can be built, and brain function can improve. This isn’t just wishful thinking or blind hope. It’s neuroscience!
There is a very real thing called neuroplasticity. That is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or to experiences following injury…and trauma is an injury. The brain is truly an amazing organ and it has the ability to adapt. The earlier that intervention can happen, the easier it is to rewire things, but it can still happen at any age, especially if the person is willing to work at it.
Take my free course!
My Understanding Developmental Trauma course offers a detailed look at what developmental trauma is, what is it not, and how early childhood trauma exposure affects kids and their ability to function in all areas of life…often for life!
The course is FREE and not very long, but the fundamental information I share in this course lays the foundation for truly being able to understand and reach your child.
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I love this article Diana. I am a professional working in Family Preservation. Being that trauma is often intergenerational I am seeing a pattern in the parent that I have finally pinpointed as cognitive functioning impacted by their own trauma. They can’t remember appointments, etc. This impacts their ability to function in many ways. That’s how I found this article, I’ll probably take the course and check out your resources. Eventually I am going on my own as an MSW and have IMH work also so I’m trying to tie the pieces together and learn how to help parents improve their cognitive functiong.