Stress and Child Abuse: Wounds that Time Can’t Heal?


Probably in large part because I feel so stressed at this precise moment, today’s post is inspired by a post I read this morning by Rohan entitled “Stress Reduction: Close Your Eyes and Visualize.” You should bounce on over there and read the whole thing yourself because it’s interesting stuff. But here are some of the highlights:

“The amygdala can not differentiate between real threat and perceived threat, real pleasure, or perceived pleasure.”

“So as you can see the amygdala is not your enemy. Whether your amygdala works for you or against you depends on the kind of stimulus you expose it to and the kinds of thoughts and visualizations that you run through your head on a daily basis.”

“If the amygdala is as easy to trick and as malleable as it seems to be, why not keep it fed with warm, happy thoughts and visualizations instead?”

He then provides steps for reducing stress via visualization techniques.

This got me thinking about research I’ve read about how childhood abuse affects how survivors handle stress. In short, there is much research that indicates the brains of child abuse survivors are different than the brains of their non-abused peers.

The Adults Surviving Child Abuse website provides a full list of ways in which the physiology of the brain is impacted by abuse and will provide an excellent list of resources for anyone interested in further and more complete exploration of this topic.

Do you know what cortisol is? Cortisol is a naturally occurring steroid hormone. It’s often referred to as the “stress hormone.” Remember learning about “fight or flight syndrome?” A lot of people assume that’s based totally on the much more well-known adrenaline; however, cortisol plays an equally important role.  In high stress situations, the brain pumps out extra cortisol; amongst other things, it leads to a quick burst of energy (for survival), it decreases sensitivity to pain, and provides heightened memory senses.

In normal people and normal situations, the “fight or flight” survival response is followed by the body’s relaxation response during which these hormones are brought back down to normal levels. The problem with this for children in abusive situations is that when the body is under chronic stress (I think we can all agree that abused children face a great deal of consistent stress), the relaxation response never occurs.  The body remains in a heightened state of awareness.  Often, children in abusive situations stay hyper-vigilant–because they’re never quite sure when  the next bad or scary thing is going to happen (Will mom come home trashed tonight? Will dad take it out on me?). They’re always prepared–even when things seemed to be going well, they’re prepared for the other foot to fall because they know it’s only a matter of time. They are constantly flooded with stress hormones.

Because children’s brains aren’t fully formed, all this extra hormone takes a toll on their developing brains. And even into adulthood–even when the threat is eliminated, the brain of abuse survivors continues to operate differently. Stress–even to minor stimulus–has much more of an effect on survivors.  The regulation of hormones doesn’t work quite right any more, so the response to stress is overly exaggerated. The long-term effects are staggering.

The limbic system and the amygdala are impacted, with the amygdala eventually becoming immune to the signals being sent to it. So when Rohan explains that the amygdala’s response “depends on the kind of stimulus you expose it to,” he’s right. The problem for survivors of abuse, of course, is that it may not be appropriately responding to stimuli any more, so when we try to “trick” the amygdala by “Reading a happy or positive book, watching a funny or uplifting movie and spending time with people who raise your spirits,” it may have no effect at all–it’s too late.

As a result, Dr. Trotter explains on her blog, adult survivors are “more likely to be highly stressed, have difficulties with anger and emotions, and be prone to self-harm, anxiety, suicide and depression.” I know; I’ve seen it first-hand. Foster children removed from their homes for abuse/neglect experience difficulty dealing effectively with stress. They have a hard time expressing their emotions properly. Or interpreting the emotional responses of others. And this follows them into adulthood.

So…what do we do about it? When we catch child abuse early enough, we need to focus on really helping children learn to appropriately deal with stress–give them specific strategies for reducing stress to try to help regulate the limbic system before any further damage is done, so these children may “get out of a cycle” in which their amygdalas believe “that there’s a tiger chasing [them]when there’s not” (Rohan’s analogy).

Visualization, as proposed by Rohan, may be one such strategy that could be effective. Unfortunately, abuse that occurs prior to the age of 5 has the most significant impact according to research.  But if we can work with children prior to the age of 18 even, we may be able to have some positive effect. We’ll never be able to erase or reverse the effects of their abuse on them (despite the fact that people are always saying “children are so resilient”), but perhaps we can do something to get them out of survival mode, so they have a better chance at leading healthy, productive lives in the future. But the biggest thing we, as a society, can do for these children? Find ways to decrease child abuse in this country. Focus on prevention. Because as Dr. Teicher suggests in his article on the neurobiology of child abuse, there are some wounds that time just won’t heal.


Filed under Foster Care, My Opinion

5 responses to “Stress and Child Abuse: Wounds that Time Can’t Heal?

  1. This is an excellent post! Now you got me thinking a lot about all these children that got abused in the past!

  2. Thank You, Thank You,THANK YOU! It was so good to read this!

  3. Rohan 7 Things

    Great post! It’s true that trauma presents different differently in those who witnessed or experienced only a single traumatic event, and those who sustained ritualized abuse over a long period of time. And as you say, those who experience heightened stress levels as a child with develop differently which is very sad.

    You should check out the work of Peter A Levine. His Somatic Experiencing is the most effective form of trauma healing I’ve seen, pretty amazing stuff!

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

    All the best.


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