What happens biologically we experience trauma?
Exposure to a distressing event or a series of chronic traumatic events activates the body’s biological stress response system.
The biological stress response system is made up of different, interacting systems, that work together to protect the individual against any threats by shifting towards a fight, flight or freeze response.
The stressors that are associated with the traumatic event are processed by the body’s sensory systems through the brains thalamus, which then activates the communication process between the amygdala which is the alarm system for stressful events; the hippocampus which assists with learning including memories for safety and danger; and the prefrontal cortex which controls behaviour and emotion.
Cortisol levels become elevated through transmission of fear signals to neurons in the prefrontal cortex, hypothalamus, and hippocampus. Subsequent changes in catecholamine levels contribute to changes in heart rate, metabolic rate, blood pressure, and alertness.
At times, traumatic events or experiences can be managed spontaneously, some experiences have trouble being processed without help.
Stress responses are a part of our natural flight, fight or freeze instincts. When feelings of distress remain, the distressing and upsetting images, thoughts and emotions create feelings of overwhelm, being back in that moment, or being frozen in time.
When your child is behaving in an unexpected way that comes across as irrational or extreme, they may be experiencing a trauma trigger as a result of unprocessed distressing event. A trigger is an aspect or element of the traumatic event that has occurred in a completely different situation but is a reminder of the initial event. Triggers are unique to each individual. A child’s triggers are activated through one or more of the five senses; sight, sound, touch, smell and taste.
When a child is experiencing a trigger, it convinces the mind that they are reliving the distressing memories and not just remembering them. This process occurs because when a child experiences one or multiple traumas the increased level of stressed that was associated with the event impacted the brains ability to process the inflow of information. That information got stuck in the nervous system and did not have the chance to get processed.
Experiencing trauma and reliving the trauma through triggers is a very unnerving and distressing experience. It is helpful to understand that as a result of children feeling like they are reliving the traumatic memories, it may elicit some negative behaviours because the child is also reliving the emotions felt during and after the trauma. For example, if a child has experienced a car crash on a bridge, bridges may be a trigger and may cause the child extreme anxiety, fear, anger, aggression, irritability, and sadness. However, each behavioural and emotional response to a trigger varies from child to child.
If a trauma hasn’t been processed, when children encounters a trigger from a negative experience, the neurological pathways stress response system become stronger and their negative thoughts and beliefs associated with the trauma strengthen.
When to see a professional?
If trauma triggers and behaviours are present six weeks after the event, research suggests that it will be beneficial for the child’s wellbeing to see a health care profession such as a counsellor. Seeking help is important because your child’s stress regarding the traumatic event may develop into ‘Childhood PTSD’.
Author: Larissa Watter, BA Counselling.
Larissa Watter is a Brisbane counsellor, passionate about working with children. She is currently furthering her studies by undertaking a Certificate in Child Centred Play Therapy.
To make an appointment with Larissa Watter try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129 or Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
- De Bellis, M. D., & Zisk, A. (2014). The biological effects of childhood trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics, 23(2), 185-222.