Recovering from Adverse Childhood Experiences and Trauma

Lynne Namka, Ed. D. © 2012

Fifteen million children in American alone are exposed to violence in the home. The effects of intimate partner violence and child abuse take a great toll on these children. Their physical, emotional, social and neurological development becomes severely affected through observing violence. Their ability to think, learn and do well in relationships becomes disrupted as they are traumatized by what they witness.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences were acknowledged in one survey of 9,058 adults. Seven categories of negative childhood events were noted in those who responded to questions about childhood trauma. Some children had multiple adverse childhood experiences.

1) Lived with problem drinker, alcoholic or street drug user: 25.6%

2) Sexually abused (overt abuse only): 22 %

3) Lived with mentally ill person: 18.8 %

4) Mother treated violently: 12.5 %

5) Emotionally abused: 11.1 %

6) Physically abused: 10.8 %

7) Household member went to prison: 3.4 %

For those with up to a maximum of 4 or more adverse experiences, the researchers found that there were many medical and mental health problems later in life. They were more likely than the general population to smoke cigarettes, use alcohol and illegal drugs, be obese and be depressed and attempt a suicide. Adults who came from homes of trauma were more likely to get cancer, diabetes, STD, hepatitis, and have a stroke. They were more likely to have more than fifty sexual partners. These severe issues were more likely to occur more commonly among survivors of child sexual abuse.

The authors noted that aversive childhood events can disrupt normal brain development and impaired social, emotional and cognitive skill development. The individuals then had more risk-taking behaviors and made poor health choices.

Adverse childhood experiences can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. With severe trauma, there can be high levels of numbing and avoidance of the bad memories along with flashbacks and avoidance of trauma-related stimuli which are associated with the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) along with severe anxiety or depression. Flashbacks are intrusions of stimuli associated with the trauma that break through making the person think that the trauma is happening in the present. Sensory fragments, visual images, smells and sound have become stored in the brain without any way to integrate them. Some neural networks may be blocked. If a child was able to process the high emotionality and meanings given to the disturbing events and return the associated stimuli to a neutral state instead of an overly sensitized one, PTSD does not form.

If aversive childhood events apply to you, all hope is not lost. There are many new therapies that are effective at creating better brain function. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (known as EMDR) is one that I use.

Dr. Daniel Amen, MD uses SPECT scans to measure changes in the brain that accompany unwanted behavioral patterns after trauma. He and Dr. Jennifer Lendl worked with Dr. Francine Shapiro, the developer of EMDR, to determine the effects of the Eye Movement protocol on brain function in people with PTSD. The results of this research can be found on Dr. Amenís web page

Trauma increases activity in the emotion-laden parts of the brain in people with PTSD. PTSD symptoms are a result of incomplete processing around an incident which was highly distressing. Brain scans show that the limbic system, basal ganglia and the right lateral temporal lobe show more activity.

Their research showed that EMDR calmed the brain areas associated with high emotionality. After EMDR, there was increased prefrontal activity especially on the left while significantly decreasing right temporal lobe activity. The eye movement procedure accelerated information processing by removing the blocks to the processing and changing the blood flow patterns in the needed areas of the brain.

Many therapists are trained in the powerful technique. You can find a list of therapists at