This is the first of two articles about how to get over childhood stress or – how does therapy work – in which I will explain how people get hurt by childhood stress (1st article) and how they can recover from it (2nd article “Healing from Childhood Stress and Abuse: How Therapy works”). I have included the impact of childhood stress seen through neurobiological eyes because it shows clearly the pathways to how the healing can take place.
I have often been asked by colleagues why I use neurobiological concepts instead of psychological concepts to explain what is going on. My answer to that is: often psychological concepts are way out there and hard to follow by people who are not totally into that side of things: take for example Freud’s or Melanie Klein’s work – very exciting … but you have to bend over backwards and jump through a needle’s eye to follow their line of thinking.
Whereas neurobiological concepts can be ‘seen’ on MRI scans and we become more understanding of how our brain works. I find that exciting.
So why is childhood stress (hardship, abuse, neglect) so damaging? Why can people not follow the often given advice and just ‘GET OVER IT’? She short answer is: Because the stressful experiences become part of who you are! Let me show you how that works: (Disclaimer: I am not a neuroscientist and don’t claim to be an expert. I’ll give you my ‘lay translation’ of hundreds of research articles and books that I have studied).
Have a look at the picture to the left. This is a representation of the neuro pathways in an infant’s brain at birth. It is pretty much a clean slate with only a few connections. From now on each experience the baby has will create a new connection. This
seems to include even some pre-birth experiences. As the parent helps the baby to regulate its inner states, for example by feeding it if it is hungry, soothing it when it is crying, clothing it when it is cold, new neuropathways are created.
Through the interpersonal experiences with an attuned and caring parent, the child is able to develop neural networks that will assist it to integrate affective states, sensations, behaviours, and consciousness. With ‘good enough’ care these networks will become functional connections that give the growing child the ability to cope with increasing levels of stimulation and arousal. We can say that the human brain does grow in response to interactions with others.
The development of the brain is not just a thing that happens by itself. It doesn’t grow like hair or fingernails do. The brain grows through continuously making new neural connections. That means that positive and
negative interactions with significant others are represented as neural
networks in the structures of our brains.
However, this is not all there is. These neural networks are also involved in the child’s construction of the self. They form the matrix for the developing personality through the weaving of conscious and unconscious experiences of somatic, temporal, or interpersonal nature that then become the narrative of the person’s self and identity. When a child is loved and cared for by, let’s say, parents and the extended family, it will grow up feeling OK and safe and it will be trusting and engaging with people, it will have a positive outlook, and learn easily. Being cared for and loved becomes part of its personality and identity.
Just as positive interpersonal experiences are associated with building neural structures that assist with the regulation of affective states and the development of a positive sense of self, the absence of these experiences is connected with lacking these structures. Growing up in an environment of abuse and/or neglect may cause the neural development of the child to be interrupted, arrested, or reversed, leading to the inability to regulate and control states of arousal and subsequently to a lack of self-confidence. Indeed, research using
Indeed, research using brain scans has revealed that children with a history of abuse or neglect had brains that were less developed and smaller in size than brains of children from supportive families.
Every child is born with brain circuits ready to respond to a vast variety of experiences. And the two images above show how these circuits develop into ever increasing complexity. However, at the age of six something interesting happens. Because the demands of life get more and more complex for the child as it grows up, the brain has to increase its efficiency. It goes about that using a process called ‘pruning’.
It’s a bit like pruning a tree. How does the brain know what neuro connections to prune away? It goes by the traffic volume. If a connection is used frequently, let’s say “being reassured,” it will stay while the connection “it’s unsafe to climb a tree because I fell down once” will be pruned away. The image I have in my mind for this process is that of a path through the bush that is not used very often and starts growing over and becomes invisible.
For a person with lots of childhood stress (abuse, neglect, hardship) there may not be a lot of “I am OK” left after the pruning process. But not only that! There is another problem being added here: stress causes all sorts of neurophysiological changes, for example, more norepinephrine, dopamine, endogenous opioids, and glucocorticoid and less serotonin (all terribly complicated words that you can immediately forget). Important is that
these hormones interfere with – or even close down – adaptive mental processes.
When the child is stressed through abuse, it may not notice that the neighbour wants to be supportive because it hides away and doesn’t trust anybody. These hormones also interfere with cognitive processes and memory processes leading to a break-down of an integrated sense of self and overall mental well-being. Such collapse could manifest itself in incoherent narratives of past and present experiences, disturbances of identity and self-confidence, self-esteem, self-respect, fear, over-compliance, non-compliance, aggressiveness, or elusiveness.
While this may all seem very grim, here comes the ray of hope! The brain is able to constantly build new neuropathways – even until we die. Of course, it’s not as quick and easy as in childhood, but it does happen. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to learn a new language, learn a new skill, learn a new behaviour, or even change our mind as we get older. Otherwise, there would be no need for therapists! Stay tuned for the second part coming asap!