Early Life Trauma and the Brain

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

Early Life Trauma and the Brain
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It is time again to thank another person whose insights have benefitted me. The following points I have learned from reading Gabor Maté’s great book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”.

* Even before birth, the stress hormone cortisol can be damaging to the developing baby’s brain. If a pregnant mother is feeling very stressed for prolonged periods of time, the baby is literally bathed in raised levels of cortisol within the amniotic fluid.

* This can lead to a relative scarcity of dopamine receptors in the baby’s brain which increases the child’s risk to addictions later in life. (People low in the neurotransmitter dopamine often feel depressed, “foggy," may have a poor memory and a slow reaction time.)

* Once in this world, attachment is key for early brain development. The emotional environment of the early years, the nurture and love a growing infant receives from their caregiver(s), determines to a large extent the child’s own ability to process emotions, govern behaviour and form healthy relationships throughout life.

* In a study, rats separated from their mothers at an early stage display permanent disruption of the dopamine incentive-motivation system in their midbrains. [1]

* Parental nurturing also influences the neurotransmitter serotonin.

* Monkeys separated from their mothers have lower life long serotonin levels than their peers who were not separated from their mothers.[2] (Low serotonin levels are linked to depression and anxiety).

* Infants can’t self regulate their distress. They need their caregivers to regulate them. If babies and infants don’t get picked up, their stress levels go through the roof. Maternal contact alters the neurobiology of the infant.

* Children with insecure attachments will not have the same biochemical environment in their brains as their well-nurtured and well-regulated peers.

* The dopamine and opioid circuits, the limbic or emotional brain, the stress system and the impulse-control areas in the brain are all affected by early, developmental childhood trauma.[3]

It is my view that we are all unique and that one approach does not fit all. There are different ways of addressing these imbalances in our biochemistry, from medication to alternative methods like cultivating gratitude. I have written more about this in Trauma Part 2: Trauma and what might be helpful to do about it.

It is a fact that our brains can change throughout our lifetimes; you might have heard of “neuroplasticity”. A rocky start in life does not mean we have to be defined by this forever. Counselling can help with this.

Please talk to your GP if you consider taking medication and please remember that this is a two-way-process. You have the right to ask questions about the medication, including the side effects, and you also have the right to go back for another consultation if you are not happy with the medication. You can also make an appointment just for some information and go away to think about it, without committing to anything.

You can also take medication and go to counselling as well.

[1] Maté, G. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. 2018. Page 189 [2] Page 190 [3] Page 193


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