Month: March 2013

Childhood Trauma – Break the Cycle

Painful experiences early in life can alter the brain in lasting ways.

A difficult reality for psychiatrists and counselors of child abuse is that young victims are at high risk of becoming offenders themselves one day, although it’s unclear why. But now a team of behavioral geneticists in Switzerland report a possible reason: early psychological trauma may actually cause lasting changes in the brain that promote aggressive behavior in adulthood.

Writing this week Translational Psychiatry, the researchers describe a series or experiments conducted in rats that led them to that conclusion. Animals placed in traumatic, fear-inducing situations around the time of puberty show high and sustained levels of aggression later in life. And while rats cannot substitute for humans, the scared rats also showed changes in hormone levels, brain activity, and genetic expression that appear very similar to traits observed among troubled and unusually violent people.


The main implication of the research, says study co-author Carmen Sandi, is that it links two previously observed phenomena: the higher rate of aggression among those experiencing early-life stress, and the blunted activation of a brain region known as the orbitofrontal cortex among people with pathological aggression. Social learning, it seems, may not be the only thing that makes abused kids more likely to grow up aggressive.

“This is a key finding which highlights the importance of not only developing social programs and politics, but also of reinforcing research that could offer valid [medical] treatments for individuals that have been victimized early in life,” says Sandi, the director of the Brain Mind Institute at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in an email discussing the study. “We need to understand the neurobiological mechanisms to offer better solutions to break ‘the cycle of violence.’”

In the study, Sandi and colleagues tested the rats for changes in specific regions of the brain following long periods of fear, and then tested a potential treatment to determine if it was possible to undo those brain changes.

They began by exposing about 40 pubescent male rats for a few minutes at a time over several days, to severe stress — which, for the rats was either the scent of a fox or being stranded on a brightly lit platform. Those rats immediately showed higher levels of stress hormones and later puberty onset than similar animals not exposed to those experiences.

As adults, the stressed rats showed greater aggression toward other males they met — even ones that were clearly not a threat because they were much smaller or even anesthetized. And the once-stressed animals also showed more signs of depression and anxiety, including a reduced interest in food, lower sociability, and a tendency to give up quickly when faced with a challenge.

Those behavioral changes were accompanied by neurobiological changes in the brain as well. Compared to normal rats, the once-fearful ones had higher levels of the hormone testosterone, which is linked to aggression. They also showed more activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotions such as fear and anxiety, and altered connectivity between the amygdala and a region of the brain involved in decision-making. These brain alterations were also correlated with enhanced expression of the gene for an enzyme known as monoamine oxidase A, or MAOA, providing the scientists with a potential way to reverse the effects of the early traumas. Indeed, treating the rats with an MAOA inhibitor helped to restore normal social behavior and reduce aggression in the formerly stressed animals.

It turns out that the MAOA gene is also related to aggressive behavior in people, and certain inherited variants of the gene have also been linked to aggressive tendencies. Because the new study showed that MAOA inhibitors were effective in treating pathological aggression in rats, Sandi says the findings might suggest a similar drug treatment for humans, too, to complement behavioral therapy.

“What we show in our study is that, regardless of the genetic background, exposure to early life trauma can on its own affect the expression levels of this molecule in the brain,” Sandi says. “Our work is novel in many ways, particularly because it provides concrete neurobiological pathways that link early trauma with pathological aggression.”

Why would early traumatic experiences crave permanent changes in the brain? Evolutionarily, such brain changes may have helped us to survive a harsh and cruel environment, by keeping us on edge and ready to confront any possible threats, Sandi says. Today, however, those same changes may do more harm than good, leading some victims of abuse to slip into a vicious cycle, seeing threats where none exist, and overreacting to situations, often with violence. It’s possible that some people may be genetically more sensitive to the changes triggered by painful experiences, and therefore more likely to benefit from treatments that can address those genetic differences. Better understanding of why vicious cycles of violence exist may help researchers to find ways to break them.

Break the cycle of childhood trauma today

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Trauma Treatment: Healing Emotional and Psychological Trauma

Symptoms, Treatment & Recovery

Emotional and psychological trauma is far more common than most people realise. You don’t have to live in a war zone, get raped or assaulted to experience emotional and psychological trauma.

Most of us have experienced some degree of emotional and psychological trauma during childhood. Maybe it was the school bully or an overly strict parent. Maybe you got separated from your family in a busy crowd when you were little. For some the trauma is related to far more frightening events such as alcoholic or abusive parents.

It is not the event that determines whether something is traumatic to someone, but the individual’s experience of the event.

As our understanding of our fragile psyche has grown it has become clear that trauma is a normal part of growing up.

It is important to understand that it is not the event that determines whether something is traumatic to someone, but the individual’s experience of the event.

What is Emotional and Psychological Trauma?

Emotional and psychological trauma is the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world.

Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.



Causes of Emotional and Psychological Trauma

An event will most likely lead to emotional or psychological trauma if:

  • It happened unexpectedly.
  • You were unprepared for it.
  • You felt powerless to prevent it.
  • It happened repeatedly.
  • Someone was intentionally cruel.
  • It happened in childhood.

Emotional and psychological trauma can be caused by single-blow, one-time events, such as a horrible accident, a natural disaster, or a violent attack. Trauma can also stem from ongoing, relentless stress, such as living in a crime-ridden neighborhood or struggling with cancer.

Commonly overlooked Causes
of Emotional and Psychological Trauma

  • Falls or sports injuries
  • Surgery (especially in the first 3 years of life)
  • The sudden death of someone close or even a close pet
  • A car accident
  • The breakup of a significant relationship
  • A humiliating or deeply disappointing experience
  • The discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition

Risk factors that increase your vulnerability to Trauma

Not all potentially traumatic events lead to lasting emotional and psychological damage. Some people rebound quickly from even the most tragic and shocking experiences. Others are devastated by experiences that, on the surface, appear to be less upsetting.

A number of risk factors make people susceptible to emotional and psychological trauma. People are more likely to be traumatized by a stressful experience if they’re already under a heavy stress load or have recently suffered a series of losses.

People are also more likely to be traumatized by a new situation if they’ve been traumatized before – especially if the earlier trauma occurred in childhood.

Childhood trauma increases the risk of future trauma

Experiencing trauma in childhood can have a severe and long-lasting effect. Children who have been traumatized see the world as a frightening and dangerous place. When childhood trauma is not resolved, this fundamental sense of fear and helplessness carries over into adulthood, setting the stage for further trauma.

Childhood trauma results from anything that disrupts a child’s sense of safety and security, including:

  • An unstable or unsafe environment
  • Separation from a parent
  • Serious illness
  • Intrusive medical procedures
  • Sexual, physical, or verbal abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Neglect
  • Bullying

Symptoms of Emotional and Psychological Trauma

Following a traumatic event, or repeated trauma, people react in different ways, experiencing a wide range of physical and emotional reactions. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to think, feel, or respond to trauma, so don’t judge your own reactions or those of other people. Your responses are NORMAL reactions to ABNORMAL events.

Emotional and psychological symptoms of trauma:

  • Shock, denial, or disbelief
  • Anger, irritability, mood swings
  • Guilt, shame, self-blame
  • Feeling sad or hopeless
  • Confusion, difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Feeling disconnected or numb

Physical symptoms of trauma:

  • Insomnia or nightmares
  • Being startled easily
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Aches and pains
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Edginess and agitation
  • Muscle tension

These symptoms and feelings typically last from a few days to a few months, gradually fading as you process the trauma. But even when you’re feeling better, you may be troubled from time to time by painful memories or emotions—especially in response to triggers such as an anniversary of the event or an image, sound, or situation that reminds you of the traumatic experience.

When to seek professional help
for Emotional or Psychological Trauma

Recovering from a traumatic event takes time, and everyone heals at his or her own pace. But if months have passed and your symptoms aren’t letting up, you may need professional help from a trauma expert.

Seek help for emotional or psychological trauma if you’re:

  • Having trouble functioning at home or work
  • Suffering from severe fear, anxiety, or depression
  • Unable to form close, satisfying relationships
  • Experiencing terrifying memories, nightmares, or flashbacks
  • Avoiding more and more things that remind you of the trauma
  • Emotionally numb and disconnected from others
  • Using alcohol or drugs to feel better

I have extensive experience in assisting clients release emotional and psychological trauma using a variety of advanced therapies that utilise the power of your unconscious mind to achieve fast and reliable results.

Contact me on 9650-6520 to make an appointment
or discuss your situation in more detail.

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