What do we actually mean by the term “Trauma” when used in a psychological context?

Stress, especially stress while the brain is still vulnerable and developing, is the most potent driving force for Neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the term we use to describe the process of adaptation the wiring in our brain makes as a response to our experiences and our environments. Experiences and environments, especially extreme and challenging experiences and environments, have the power to shape and change the way our brain cells grow and wire themselves together. Our brain cells are like individuals in themselves and we each have around 80 to 90 billion of them, they connect together and communicate through microscopic filaments called axons and dendrites. These axons and dendrites are insulated by a covering of something called myelin to stop them being affected by unwanted stimulation. How well our brain cells communicate with each other depends upon the healthy development of the cells, connections and insulating myelin. When our brain cells struggle to communicate and maintain cooperation, the environment in our brain can become unstable and we may also present to the external world in ways that appear unstable in terms of our personality and responses, especially to stressors. Instead of cooperation and presenting as a cohesive whole

How developmental experiences of fear affect our fear response is both biological and contextual.

Biologically, fear in the developing mind causes an increase in development of the structures and processes for responding to danger, the greater the experience, or the duration of the experience, the faster and stronger become the structures and processes for responding to danger. At the same time as these structures receive a boost in energy, other structures not vital to responding to danger experience reduced energy supply, including and especially processes and structures that are involved in inhibiting the response to danger.

Contextually, whatever caused the initial fear is filed away in the memory systems of fear processing. These memory systems are not what are called “declarative memory”, or the kind of memory that we can recall in sounds and images. These memories are stored in a parallel system to consciousness that is mobilised to affect our actions, words and behaviours when confronted with anything that reminds us (unconsciously) of the experience that caused the initial fear.

Every time a child experiences fear, it both alters the structures of their brain and the structures of the personal narratives (stories) the child (and subsequent adult) lives by and uses to understand their place in the world.

In terms of development, a little bit of fear is good as it trains the fear response. If the fear is short lived, solvable and overcome, then it becomes an important learning experience through which the child learns coping skills for life and how to mobilise and provide a solution to life’s problems.

However, when the fear is an ongoing state, continuous, repetitive, or intense, with no apparent solution or escape, that it becomes highly poisonous to development. The stress hormones, when they are unrelenting, act like a poison on both our body and our mind. More so, when our brains are young and still growing. Not only does it cause changes in our brain, but it causes changes in the immune system and biological maintenance of our bodies because energy is being redirected to the muscles and away from our organs, immune system and cell maintenance processes, compromising both our present and future health in innumerable ways.

In fact, even before birth, our brains are responding to and adapting to our mother’s emotional states while we are still in the womb, preparing us for the kind of world our mother is experiencing. This adaptation is not without its perils, high levels of prenatal testosterone in the womb, which would be being produced in response to aggressive maternal behaviours and environments, have been linked to the developmental problems of autism. Even before conception both the eggs in the ovaries and the sperm in the testes are altering their DNA in response environment and experience that have developmental consequences for any child conceived from union between egg and sperm.

Every parent damages their children in some way. We are incredibly ignorant, in our societies, of what is actually going on inside a child as they grow and develop, the fine tuning of neurons and how they connect to their neighbours, and how this whole process of growth is experience and environment dependent and how parents are the primary determining factor in the experience and environment. Parents enter parenting knowing nothing about parenting other than what they learned by being parented. We need to teach the basics of developmental neuroscience in schools alongside Maths and English so that tomorrow’s parents can enter parenting with the knowledge and understanding that their children’s positive and negative experiences and environments will affect their children’s paths of development.

This is not about regretting, blaming or shaming. The past has been and gone and cannot be changed, but the future is a big ball of clay waiting to be shaped by our hands. Don’t waste your time or emotions on regrets about the past, invest your time and emotions in the present to build a better future.

Let’s build a better, happier and more connected world for future generations.