The Brain On Trauma | Michelle Dixon

Developmental trauma and its effect on the brain.

Trauma changes the body permanently.

In this blog, I’m very generally reviewing a study which shows how childhood trauma affects brain development and the nervous system.

There is so much amazing scientific information in this study – but it is definitely a complex read. I don’t want to get into the nitty gritty as I know some of you will dork out like me, and go read the study for yourself.

For those of you just want the quick and grossly simplified version – here is my summary. I’m only really covering the main points just to explain this to you:

Developmental trauma causes permanent changes in the body’s and the brain’s structures and chemistry … even generations later!

The body’s stress reponse is an interactive, multi-system response to trauma (extreme emotional events) that is processed through the sensory systems via the thalamus in the brain. From there, the amygdala is activated – this part of the brain detects fear and anxiety.

In other words, this is how it all begins –> the body senses danger through its senses, which is processed by the thalamus, and then relayed to the amygdala as an urgency to be afraid, be very afraid!

The fear that is produced next in the body signals to neurons in the prefrontal cortex, hypothalamus, and hippocampus, and activity increases in the locus coeruleus and sympathetic nervous system – activity that is meant to PROTECT YOU.

The body is alerted to danger, and this elevates the heart rate, increases metabolism, raises blood pressure, and ramps up your alertness.

At the same time, biochemical systems are launched into response, flooding the body with hormones needed to fight or flight (endorphins), elevating cortisol, and decreasing other non-essential hormones.

This creates lasting structural change

Over time, the body’s alertness to danger informs the body that it must be ever-ready to flee or to seek protection. This causes changes in heart rate, metabolic rate, blood pressure, and alertness, and stimulates the body to produce inflammation (which in normal circumstances is part of our body’s recovery mechanism – but the inflammatory response goes into overdrive in traumatic circumstances).

All of this also has an ongoing effect on lowering the immune system more broadly.

This also creates lasting biochemical changes

People who have suffered developmental trauma have permanently lower levels of cortisol in their bodies because they create cortisol (the stress hormone) more often, and with less provocation. This is another way of saying that the body goes into a biochemical stress response easily, and too often, which decreases the body’s cortisol storage.

It has been shown that there is an epigenetic factor as well – generations later, the descendants of Holocaust survivors also show low cortisol levels! This is how intergenerational trauma works at the level of biochemistry.

The body’s natural levels of oxytocin (bonding hormone) and dopamine (feel good hormone), and seratonin (the happiness chemical) are also compromised.

This great graphic from the study I am summarising is far more sciencey than my graphic, but it does show how the brain and body are affected by developmental trauma.

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