Childhood trauma can have a lasting effect on physical and mental health. But with the help of neuroplasticity, healing is possible.
Your brain is constantly changing in response to what’s happening around you. This is known as neuroplasticity.
These brain changes help us learn and adapt to our environments. But when we’re placed in very stressful situations, like during traumatic experiences, some brain changes can result in lasting physical and mental health challenges.
That said, positive change is possible. The neuroplasticity that enables brains to change in response to trauma also allows them to heal. Therapies like Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy show promising potential for childhood trauma recovery.
During childhood, the brain is very plastic. Connections between different brain areas change in strength as children have different experiences and develop an understanding of the world and their place in it.
Many instances of trauma in childhood are classified as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). This includes abuse, neglect, violence, or a significant disruption in the first 18 years of life.
According to a
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- suicidal behavior
- antisocial behavior
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- reduced ability to regulate impulses
- substance use
Trauma leads to a sensitized nervous system
Trauma’s effect on the brain starts with the activation of the amygdala. This almond-shaped brain region is the gatekeeper of emotional regulation. Once it detects a threat, another brain area called the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic (fight, flight, freeze, or fawn) nervous system response.
If a child experiences trauma, their brain may detect threats more easily. This means they may feel stress, anxiety, or depression more easily, even as adults.
Trauma leads to increased inflammation
The activation of the sympathetic nervous system triggers the immune system and inflammation response. This aims to prepare the body for repair from physical injury, but the same responses occur when faced with psychological threats.
People who have experienced ACEs are more vulnerable to inflammation later in life.
They may also have reduced counter-inflammatory action from the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis usually works with the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you relax, to prevent chronic inflammation.
A 2017 study involving 1,000 participants who were followed from birth to 32 years of age linked childhood maltreatment to elevated inflammation biomarkers.
Trauma-induced inflammation may change how neurotransmitters work in the brain. When this happens early enough, it can affect brain development.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to rewire itself in response to your experiences. In the past, doctors assumed that this ability was limited to a short time during youth. However, because of improvements in brain imaging technology, we now know that neuroplasticity is a lifelong quality.
This means that regardless of age, it may be possible to rewire your brain and nervous system from childhood trauma by having new, positive, and supportive experiences.
Think of neuroplasticity as creating habits. To use it to your advantage, you simply repeat the behaviors and experiences you want to keep and avoid the ones you do not. You can read about some neuroplasticity exercises here.
In the case of an automatic trauma response, which can be hard to manage, a therapy such as EMDR can be helpful.
EMDR therapy changes the way a traumatic memory is stored in your brain using eye movements or rhythmic tapping. This allows you to process the trauma so that you can remember the event without reliving it.
EMDR is considered a medical procedure because of the way it changes the structure of the brain. Electroencephalogram (EEG)
Experts are still in the early stages of understanding how EMDR works. According to the American Psychiatric Association, EMDR therapy is “conditionally recommended” for treating PTSD. While the evidence indicates that it can have good outcomes, this evidence may not be as strong as for other therapies.
The treatment increases a low-frequency rhythm in memory areas of the brain, a state that’s similar to slow-wave sleep. This disables fear receptors so your memories can be reconfigured to no longer be connected to strong emotions.
Without the amygdala’s emotional response, the hypothalamus can allow the parasympathetic nervous system (the relaxation system) to take over. You can help this transition with mindfulness training or breathing exercises.
It’s the brain’s neuroplasticity that makes it possible for this rewiring to occur and for EMDR to change the way traumatic memories are stored so that they no longer activate strong emotions.
If you’re living with the aftereffects of childhood trauma, you likely know how this trauma can affect you for many years.
Your brain is equipped with lifelong neuroplasticity that enables you to heal from trauma. Therapies like EMDR can help you achieve this goal.
If you’re interested in learning more about EMDR, the EMDR International Association (EMDRIA) is a comprehensive resource with support networks, therapists, and publications.
Crisis support is available if you’re experiencing overwhelming emotions. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 and Crisis Text Line at 741741 (text HOME) are there if you need immediate support.
Childhood trauma may be a part of the adult you are today, but tools like EMDR can make use of neuroplasticity to help you heal and move forward.