Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse
The particular qualities of early childhood abuse can create high levels of stress that in turn leads to the trauma of shattered expectations, the realisation of our own vulnerability and the capacity of others to commit evil acts. When this happens, infants and preschool-aged kids have not developed the cognitive ability to understand these concepts, but they are traumatized through their separation from security. It is this fear that generates the high levels of stress that fashions the neurological framework of the child.
The intricacy of stress has been described in previous Newsletters but in this work, we are only considering the reaction to very high levels of stress that are the result of the response to the very existence of the child.
The body’s response to threat makes sense when we consider the primary function is to survive, the other drive, to reproduce is not a consideration of the infant. So the response of the brain, the decision-making centre of our bodies, makes optimal decisions for the conditions that we are facing. This flight/fight response is purely instinctive because a young infant is incapable of either flight or fight so the activation of the automatic nervous system would be of little practical use.
The infants do however have the ability to respond in the third of the ‘3F's' (the first two are flight and fight) and that is to freeze. They dissociate. It was a fashion in the past that when children were crying in bed, they were attention seeking and the advice was to ignore them, they would eventually stop. There is some truth in this 'attention seeking' behaviour if the practice has been rewarded, but there are times when the baby is highly stressed, and when they do stop crying they have ‘given-up' on life.
However, when the threat occurs, the brain is awash with a chemical cocktail to prepare a fight/flight response. At the time the incoming stimulus quickly goes through the receptors, through the thalamus, the ‘clearing house’ of the stimulus on to the amygdala. The amygdala perceives the stimulus as representing a real, immediate threat and a sequence of events takes place to prepare the body—first to 'flight,' and if that is not an available option, to 'fight.'
This movement to flight/fight involves a series of synaptic signals that release a cocktail of chemicals that in turn dramatically change the physiological status of the body. This response is known as the general adaptive syndrome. The body is prepared to deal with the identified threat.
It is the importance of the amygdala in this process that results in its ‘abnormal' development. Because the function of the amygdala is important, it becomes more enlarged so it can better deal with future threats. The enhancement of the amygdala along with the resulting propensity to initiate the flight/fight response has a paradoxical effect. When these kids grow-up they become hypersensitive to a stimulus that resembles a threat. As a result, when they are in a situation that may look like a threat their amygdala is activated before they can make a considered judgment about the potential danger.
The second area of brain development that is affected by the conditions of elevated threat is in the ‘higher order' areas of the brain, the hippocampus, and the frontal lobes.
In the usual ‘general adaptive syndrome' process, when the threat is over the brain returns to rest. Within the complex chemical activity that achieves this is cortisol that washes across the brain. Unfortunately, if the threat is not ‘turned off' or the process is too frequent the constant presence of cortisol has a corrosive impact on the brain.
The hippocampus is reduced in size by as much as 12% and the frontal lobes as much as 20%. There are other parts of the brain such as the cerebellum that are also damaged, but it is the changes in the hippocampus and frontal lobes that cause trouble for the children in the future. It is in these areas that we develop the ability to make rational decisions and capacity to delay gratification. The hippocampus and the frontal lobes are at the cognitive heart of our success.
So children who have been abused are subjected to real physical brain damage, and that damage is handicapping the very processes that are needed if we are to help them overcome the dysfunctional behaviour that results from their history of abuse. They are more sensitive to stress and therefore more likely to react in their ineffective, habitual manner and are less equipped to make calm decisions required to avoid that dysfunctional habit.