Neuroscience and Trauma in Childhood


Post traumatic stress can feel overwhelming when a traumatic event isn’t able to be processed. In a lot of cases the current trauma can bring up unprocessed feelings from an earlier trauma. This earlier trauma, often in childhood, has been left unprocessed because it is too painful to remember in any detail. So we can carry around some post traumatic stress from the original trauma.


Neuroscience: brain cells that fire together wire together


Neuroscience (the study of the brain and nervous system) has proven that prolonged stress can have a serious affect on the structure of the brain. The traumatic event (which we are trying to ignore) actually weakens the functioning of the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. This is the part that regulates our emotions, thoughts and behaviours.

The first few years of life are vital to shaping our brains. The brain’s connections or neurons are stimulated or restricted by the experiences they encounter. Each time we repeat a thought, action or feeling we strengthen the connection between the brain cells or neurons. Therefore if we have an experience which we find traumatic or highly stressful the brain’s neurons can freeze. If this trauma is repeated eg a baby or young child not having its needs met over a prolonged period of time, the immobilisation can increase with each experience which may mean that the child becomes very fearful and lacks self esteem.  If the child is not allowed to express these feelings they can lead to anxiety and depression later in life.


However there is hope


MRI scans show that the brain can change at any age ie it is flexible. This is called neuroplasticity. New neuron patterns can be created in the same way that the unhealthy neuron patterns were. Hard data from research is proving what we already know about counselling from clinical experience with clients – that we really can change our brains and improve our lives permanently.

I have found Daniel Siegel really helpful in explaining the integration of neuroscience and psychotherapy. His books The Developing Mind and Mindsight are great places to start.



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