Trauma, Stress Disorders, and The Brain

trauma stress attachment

The human brain is the command central for the body. At birth, it is by far the most undifferentiated organ, and it possesses the ability to create new neural circuity for the remainder of an individual’s life. Newfound knowledge regarding life-long plasticity (based on advances in neuroscience which began in the early 90s), have continued to demonstrate the fact that the brain can undergo significant changes at any point in time. In layman’s terms – you can teach an old dog new tricks, if that dog is a human. Regardless of age, the brain can be neurologically rewired. When an individual undergoes a traumatic experience, the brain begins to shift and change accordingly. It is normal for stress responses to be triggered within the brain when one feels threatened, afraid, or unsafe. In most cases, when the threat of danger is short-lived, these stress responses will return to a state of regulation within a matter of hours.

The Human Brain and Stress Responses

For example:

Say a woman is walking home alone, and she begins to feel that she is being followed. Her heart race increases, her palms begin to sweat, and her brain urges her to run far away as quickly as possible. Suddenly, the shadowy figure who she believed was following her makes a sharp left and disappears, or is illuminated by a streetlamp, revealing a non-threatening elderly woman. Stress responses normalize, and the brain slowly begins to regulate.

However, some traumatic stress responses do not normalize on their own. If an individual undergoes significant trauma, such as rape, sexual assault, the loss of a loved one, a serious and injurious car accident, or firsthand experiences related to war violence, his or her brain may be unable to begin regulating once the event has come to pass. When this is the case, significant stress disorders may arise – post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, depression… even chronic physical illness.

Early Childhood Trauma

Interestingly enough, many traumatic experiences that deeply effect the proper functioning of stress responses within the brain do not occur later on in life. Brain development depends far more heavily on personal experience than on genetics, and it has been repeatedly proven that early life experiences have the potential to trigger significant stress disorders. The immense neurological dysregulation that results from early childhood trauma mirrors the dysregulation caused by significant trauma later on in life. Basically, regardless of age, traumatic experiences have the potential to severely inhibit the mind of the sufferer. However, the brain is more likely to return to a state of proper functioning when it is not so very early on in development. Infants and very young children who experience trauma will essentially be conditioned to respond to stress differently. Unspoken communication shapes the functioning of a child’s brain to an incredible degree – predominantly because children are so attuned to social cues and interactions. During the earliest stages of development, the brain is at its peak level of plasticity. During this stage, a lifelong template for behaviors, thought patterns, and feelings is instilled – as is a propensity for stress-related disorders. The most significant cause of stress disorders when it comes to infants and young children is a compromised and unstable attachment to a parent or primary caregiver.

Attachment and Trauma

Attachment is defined as the emotional bond that is formed between an infant and his or her primary caregiver. This bond greatly impacts the development of the infant’s brain, and will directly affect both brain functioning and structure. If an infant is neglected, abused, or reared by emotionally unavailable caregivers, this attachment relationship is known as insecure. Insecure attachment often paves the way for developmental or relational trauma. Trauma that occurs early on life will inevitably affect a wide range of functions later on in life – interpersonal relationships, self-esteem, self-awareness, the ability to learn, and physical health may all be significantly compromised. Insecure attachment results in neural dysregulation that will inexorably become the basis of intimate adult relationships. Memories of anxiety and instability will prevail, living on somewhere deep in the subconscious mind.

Healing the Mind and The Inner Child

However, because the brain remains in a constant state of plasticity, these damaged neuropathways can be restored with intensive therapeutic care and the maintenance of stable and secure relationships. Relationships with secure adult partners have been known to facilitate emotional healing in partners who struggle with insecure attachment disorders. In order for thorough healing to occur, those with insecure attachments and related stress disorders must undergo comprehensive treatment, tackling both issues concurrently. In many cases, adults who have struggled with stress disorders since early childhood will have turned to alternative methods of coping – namely, drug and alcohol abuse. For this reason (amongst others), an inpatient addiction and trauma treatment center is typically the most effective in laying a stable foundation for long-term, meaningful recovery. We at Next Chapter offer a comprehensive, male-exclusive addiction and trauma program for those who have suffered relational trauma, and who may struggle with a stress-related disorder as a result. For more information, please feel free to contact us today.