When a wolf catches her foot in a trap, she experiences trauma. If she is able to get free in time to save her life, whether through her own devices or help from another being, she will have learned about the dangers of traps. But her brain will also have absorbed a pattern of responding to severe stress; and the experience may sear her memory with a track composed of hormones cascading into physiological response to fear and pain. This shortcut to high stress response may affect her behavior in other ways. Of course, if she is not freed from the trap in time, she will die. But the unmitigated stress response itself can become a negative adaptation, and cause the wolf version of post traumatic stress disorder. She experiences the fear of being caught in the trap over and over again, when even minor events trigger the response pattern of high levels of physiological fight or flight reactions that the brain has learned from the traumatic event.
Some women in dangerous relationships, when they suffer abuse which they do not escape soon enough, become traumatized by the abuse in much the same way. Eventually, they either free themselves, or through a confusing combination of abuse events and reconciliations, develop a state of learned helplessness that inhibits their ability to protect themselves by adequate fight or flight responses. Those who stay and those who leave are both at risk for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and children in the relationship who experience or even witness the violence are also at risk for this disorder. PTSD has demonstrable physiological effects on the brain as well as affecting day-to-day behavior.
Dr. Laura Chamberlain, writer, epidemiologist, sled dog team owner, and founding director of the Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project, recently gave a presentation to a training group of women’s health professionals and women’s shelter services staff and board members. In her presentation, she outlined the magnitude of the impact trauma can have on the brains of both adults and children, as well as the epidemic levels of trauma and PTSD due to the high incidence of domestic violence that we are currently witnessing in the United States.
Dr. Chamberlain began studying the effects of trauma on the brain as an epidemiologist, examining the health effects of violence on adults and children. Slightly built, and very fit, her gestures animate her speech, keeping her audience engaged. She enlivens her presentation with props to demonstrate the size and shape of different parts of the brain. An almond represents the amygdala, a cabbage leaf represents the cortex, and so on. The emotional brain, which includes the cortex and limbic areas, contributes to abstract thought, problem solving, affiliation, and attachment. The survival brain, composed of the midbrain and brainstem, controls sexual behavior, emotional reactivity, motor regulation, sleep, and digestion. In the case of a dysfunctional or violent environment, the brain may adapt by limiting activity in the higher brain functions. Children who feel threatened in their environment will spend more time in the lower survival brain. If a child doesn’t feel safe, there is less development of the upper brain – literally visible on MRI and SPECT tests. Such children will have more difficulty focusing and paying attention, may be anxious and unable to settle down, and engage in bullying and other aggressive behaviors. Symptoms of childhood PTSD include zoning out, withdrawing, sleep problems, loss of developmental skills and violent play.
Corroborating her research findings, a recent article in Scientific American spelled out the nature of PTSD in the brain. “In post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), cues that evoke a traumatic experience induce fear reactions long after the event. Malfunctioning of a brain structure called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is thought to increase vulnerability to the condition because it modulates the amygdala, a driver of fear and anxiety.” PTSD sufferers continue to experience the acute stress responses triggered by cues that elicit memories of the original trauma. The physiological results include a racing heart, increased sweating, freezing, and exaggerated startle responses (Insel, 2010:48).Secondary effects can include poor memory and lowered learning ability, as well as inability to concentrate.
After describing the physiology and functions of the different parts of the brain to the trainees, Dr. Chamberlain emphasizes both the sensitivity of the hippocampus to trauma and its capacity for healing. “We have the capacity to heal our brains until the day we die,” she says. Using tiny repetitive tasks, we can actually rewire and create compensatory brain pathways. To start healing, she emphasizes, “the brain needs to exercise, like a muscle.”
Unfortunately, trauma often leads to other health problems as well, including depression, anxiety disorders, and behavioral problems. “These kids often start using alcohol and drugs at an early age as a way to cope and numb their feelings,” says Dr. Chamberlain. She stresses that the first three years in a child’s life are the most critical, though all ages are affected. Her evidence is alarming. “There is significant reading decrement in children exposed to domestic violence, about 9%, which is greater than that caused by lead exposure.” And children who witness domestic violence grow up at higher risk for depression and mental problems than the child who is the direct victim.
The end result of domestic violence is often a family of children and an adult parent with PTSD, even if they are able to leave the dangerous situation. Like the wolf whose leg was caught in a trap, sights, sounds, smells, and events that remind them of the painful and frightening trap will elicit fear responses. Children and adolescents with PTSD are thus at risk for mental and physical health issues, and may become higher risk-takers, or over-reactive in their daily lives, putting them on the road to behavior problems that cause them difficulties adjusting to society later on.
There are, however, solutions, and paths to healing. Dr. Chamberlain outlines several key elements for these solutions in her book, The Amazing Brain: Trauma and the Potential for Healing (2008). Dr. Chamberlain, through her informative talks, her writing, and her work with the Alaska Family Violence Prevention Project, is one of the helpers, working to gently release PTSD sufferers from the leg traps of fear.
Author Catherine Knott, Ph.D., teaches Anthropology and Sociology for the University of Alaska on the Kenai Peninsula. She has a Ph.D. in Anthropology, Natural Resources, and Education from Cornell University and a B.A. from Yale University.
Chamberlain, Linda Burgess. 2008. The Amazing Brain: Trauma and the Potential for Healing. Philadelphia: Institute for Safe Families.
Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. 1992. Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballantine Books.
Insel, Thomas, 2010. “Faulty Circuits”, Scientific American 302(4):44-51.
Jensen, Eric. 1998. Teaching with the Brain in Mind. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.