A recent study published by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety Ltd reflected on the prevalence of adolescent family violence in Australia.
Childhood trauma such as abuse, neglect, and growing up in poverty is more common than many realise. The effects on brain development and an adult’s ability to process and respond to challenging situations can be substantial and long-lasting.
by a Charles Sturt PhD student in the Charles Sturt School of Psychology Mr Nicholas McFadyen
explores how early life stress affects brain functions and the negative and
positive implications for those who have experienced childhood abuse.
Feeling helpless as a child
You may remember some aspects of what it was like to be a child. The helplessness, the lack of control, and other people making all the major decisions for us which would affect the course of our lives. Sometimes it may have even felt like dreams, such as becoming a sports star, were out of reach because an adult thought so.
The things which happen to us as children affect more than just the pathways our lives can take - they alter who we become and how we think about and respond to the world. Events that occur in childhood, particularly stressful events, change the way the brain develops, the way we think, and the choices we make.
Early life stress is common
After surveying more than 1,000 people living in western countries across the world my research found that around 70 per cent reported experiencing at least one significantly stressful event during childhood.
Early life stress such as childhood abuse, neglect, and low socio-economic circumstances is commonly associated with hindering one’s life progression. For example, childhood trauma is linked to a host of negative psychological disorders including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is also associated with an increased likelihood of engaging in harmful social behaviours including delinquency, substance abuse, and unsafe sex.
The effect of early life stress on the brain
Early life stress can result in altered neural connectivity and function which may be directly related to these adverse outcomes.
Research shows that childhood trauma makes emotional parts of the brain that react to threats more reactive and disconnected from regulatory areas of the brain. These neural changes are implicated in both the negative outcome associated with childhood abuse and cognitive functions which are also closely linked to these negative outcomes.
My research focuses on how early life stress affects these cognitive functions, and I conducted several experiments in this process.
Experiment one: attentional bias
In my first experiment participants responded to two dots. Before the dots appeared a neutral and an angry face would flash – one on each side of the screen. If the dots appeared where the angry face had been, then people with more substantial levels of childhood trauma would respond to them more quickly. This demonstrated that people with abuse have an attentional bias towards threats and that they’re more likely to focus on threatening stimuli in their environment.
Correspondingly, it made sense that people with childhood trauma are more likely to have anxiety and depression when they’re looking at the world, as they have a tendency to focus on the worst aspects of it.
Alternatively, it is also conceivable how this cognitive bias could work to the advantage of the same individual in keeping them safe in a dangerous and unpredictable environment as they are more likely to be alerted to the possible risks associated.
Experiment two: behavioural inhibition
In my second experiment, I examined behavioural inhibition, or put another way - the control people have over their behaviour. To do this, I asked participants to press a key whenever a neutral face appeared on the screen, but not to respond when an angry face appeared. Participants with a higher degree of early life stress made more errors on this task, pressing the key when they weren’t supposed to. This demonstrated that individuals with early life stress have reduced inhibition when making simple decisions – to press the key, or not press the key.
This reduced inhibition has implications for everyday decisions where the adult is faced with a simple choice that promises immediate gratification from greater risk, which therefore requires internal effort to overcome this. For example, to shoplift or not shoplift; to message the dealer, or not; to wear a condom, or not.
This does not imply that people with childhood trauma are lazier decision-makers. Instead, it suggests they have the reduced neurological and cognitive function required to muster the internal effort. They have less capacity for self-control like a depressed person may be incapable of happiness – it’s possible, but it can be very difficult.
Experiment three: how childhood trauma can assist complex decision-making
In my third experiment, I found that when it came to making more complex decisions, people with substantial childhood trauma outperformed people with less early-life stress.
During this experiment, participants had to decide whether a face was angry or neutral and press the corresponding key. Participants who had experienced substantial early life stress displayed greater inhibition towards angry faces during this task.
This effect was only characteristic of participants older than 30, indicating that maturity was a key factor. This suggests that at a certain point, individuals overcome their difficult pasts, leading to enhanced cognitive abilities.
These people may be better at making certain kinds of decisions, such as determining whether someone is safe or dangerous and reacting more effectively to cues that indicate they should stop and reconsider their response.
Wisdom can be attained from trauma
The third experiment highlighted that certain wisdom can be gleaned from trauma.
Although trauma is linked to many negative consequences, the way it changes the mind has definite adaptive value for surviving in the environment in which we were raised. If we are fortunate enough to escape that environment, then we can heal and grow in ways in which people without childhood trauma are not able to.
Assistance to start the healing process exists and is there ready to be used.
Processing your trauma may be difficult and uncomfortable, but it will change your life.
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