What is Trauma?
Trauma is a pervasive problem. It results from exposure to an incident or series of events that are emotionally disturbing or life-threatening with lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being.
Experiences that may be traumatic include:
- Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse
- Childhood neglect
- Living with a family member with mental health or substance use disorders
- Sudden, unexplained separation from a loved one
- Racism, discrimination, and oppression
- Violence in the community, war, or terrorism
Although trauma can occur at any age, it has particularly debilitating long-term effects on children’s developing brains. Often referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), exposure to these experiences is common across all sectors of society:
U.S. adults with at least one ACE
U.S. adults with three or more ACEs
However, research has shown that the risk for ACEs is particularly elevated within certain populations such as people who identified as black, Hispanic, or multiracial; people with less than a high-school education; people with low-income or who were unemployed or unable to work; and people who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
The Science of Trauma
Although the field of trauma-informed care is still coalescing, our understanding about how people’s brains and bodies respond to trauma — and the negative long-term effects of toxic stress on health — is well understood. Toxic stress is an emotional and/or physical response that occurs when a person experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity without adequate support.
How does trauma affect neurobiology and the physical development of children?
In the first 1,000 days of life, children’s brains are in a critical period of development. Trauma can negatively impact areas in the brain responsible for cognitive functions, such as short-term memory and emotional regulation. This is due in part to the fact that the body regulates stress through the release of two critical hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. Exposure to these stress hormones plays an important role in keeping people safe during times of danger; however, repeated or prolonged exposure is associated with poorer early childhood brain development.
What does experiencing childhood trauma mean for adults?
Adults who experienced trauma in childhood are often “wired” differently than those who did not. Their brains, primed to deal with nearly constant stress, can struggle to respond appropriately to situations that would otherwise appear normal and non-threatening. This partly explains why many adult trauma survivors struggle with depression, anxiety, and other issues related to emotional regulation. These resulting mental health issues can contribute to long-term difficulties maintaining healthy relationships, and lead to problems at school and/or work.
Why do traumatic experiences impact some people more than others?
Many children facing abuse and neglect carry the markers of stress, such as increased cortisol levels, well past the time of exposure. Exactly how stress alters the structure of our brains — and even our DNA — is not yet fully understood. However, research has shown that “protective factors,” such as a loving caregiver, can decrease the impact of traumatic events.