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 neuro-biological eyes
because it shows clearly the pathways to how the healing can take place.
I have often been asked by colleagues why I use neuro-biological
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 neuro-biological 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 advise 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 really not a neuro scientist 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
neuro pathways 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 connection. That means that positive and
negative interactions within 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, lets 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
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
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 6 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, lets say “being reassured” it will stay while the connection “its 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 neuro-physiological changes, for example more norephinephrine,
dopamine, endogenous opioids, and gluccocoricoids 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 process 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
While this may all seem very grim, here comes the ray of
hope! The brain is able to constantly build new neuro pathways – 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. Otherwise there would be no
need for therapists! Stay tuned for the second part coming asap!