What is Developmental/Early Childhood Trauma?
Early childhood trauma is defined as traumatic events that occur before age 3-5 years old. Developmental/early childhood trauma is different from shock trauma in that it occurs when our brains and nervous systems are still developing and is often more than one isolated incident. Shock trauma, such as a rape or car accident, is an isolated incident that occurs later on in life and impacts our nervous system in a very different way than developmental trauma does.
Examples of early childhood trauma include "big T" traumas like abuse and neglect, but also many other "small t" traumas that we might not recognize as trauma. For instance, being hospitalized as a child, being bullied, having parents who are emotionally unavailable, and many other situations can result in changes in our nervous systems. Anything that prevents a secure attachment between child and caregiver has long term implications.
What Are the Symptoms?
Developmental trauma can show up as a host of symptoms later on in life. Mental health diagnoses such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, depression, and borderline personality disorder are common as early childhood trauma can lead to difficulty in regulating mood, energy, and social interactions. Other mental/emotional symptoms include feeling numb, disconnected, or cut off from society or feeling anxious, easily startled, and irritable. Physical symptoms can manifest in many different ways as our bodies "keep the score" of our traumas. Examples include autoimmune disease, pain, digestive complaints, headaches, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
How does Trauma Impact the Nervous System?
Developmental trauma impacts how our nervous system and brain develop as a child and how our nervous system regulates itself. The nervous system becomes more primed to notice danger and be on high alert when there is a history of developmental trauma. This can manifest in chronic "fight or flight" where the blood pressure is elevated, blood sugar is higher, and it is easier to feel anxious, angry, or irritable. The other response to early childhood trauma is that the nervous system goes into "freeze" mode and actually decreases our energy, muscle activity, and blood pressure. When the nervous system is in "freeze" mode you feel numb, disconnected, apathetic, or depressed. Early childhood trauma makes it harder for the nervous system to stay regulated and to return to relaxation after experiencing a stressful event or trigger.
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