Current research shows that traumatic experiences can cause lifelong alternations in brain chemistry and body physiology.  Trauma is any stressful event that is prolonged or unpredictable and results in overwhelming feelings of fear, anxiety, and helplessness. An event is categorized as a traumatic event when the event threatens or causes harm to a person’s physical or emotional well-being. “Childhood trauma occurs when an actual or perceived threat of danger overwhelms a child’s ability to self-regulate emotional reactions and coping abilities.” (Allen 101T) In both adults and children, when faced with a threat or danger that exceeds the nervous system's ability to cope, certain
“distinguishing signs appear soon after the event. They are: 1) hyperarousal, 2) constriction, 3) dissociation, and 4) feelings of numbness and shutdown (or freeze), resulting in a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. These reactions represent universal symptoms… All children, but especially infants and the very young, show symptoms that are distinctively different from those of adults. This is due to a combination of factors including brain development, level of reasoning and perceptual development, incomplete personality formation and dependency, as well as attachment to their adult caregivers. Together with restricted motor and language skills, children have limited capacities to respond or cope. In addition to having a grown-up brain, adults have the freedom to access resources that reduce stress and anxiety…children, on the other hand, are totally dependent on their grown-ups to read and meet their needs for safety, support, nurturance, self-regulation, and reassurance.” (Levine, 2007, 40)
The younger the brain, the more sensitive it is to repeated stress and trauma. “Chronic and repeated trauma experiences may lead to complex trauma and [can] compromise all areas of child development [including] neurodevelopment, identity formation, cognitive processing, body integrity, and ability to self-regulate affect and behavior.” (Allen 101T)
It is important to keep in mind that
“some trauma symptoms are normal responses to overwhelming circumstances. The heightened arousal energy together with shutting down (when there is no escape) are biologically hard-wired survival mechanisms. However, this protective system is meant to be time-limited; our bodies were designed to return to a normal rhythm soon after the danger ends…when the intense survival energy that was summoned to defend us during a perceived threat does not get used up, we continue to experience life as if the threat is still present.” (Levine, 2007, 41)
“trauma symptoms develop when the physiological mechanism for self-protection, set into motion for escape, are thwarted (prevented for any number of reasons, either physical or through conflicts). In other words, the child or adult did not get to accomplish the full cycle of: 1) utilizing the chemical and hormonal program, 2) energizing the sensory-motor activities of protection, orientation, and defense, then 3) discharging the excess activation, and finally, 4) returning to a relaxed alertness or physiological homeostasis.” (Levine, 2007, 72)
How likely one is to develop traumatic symptoms is related to the level of shutdown(freeze) the individual experiences as well as to the undischarged energy that was originally mobilized in the freeze, flight, fight response. (Levine, 2007,7) Further, “the extent of the effects of trauma is a complex interaction of genes, psychosocial environment, critical periods vulnerability and resilience.” (Palay, 2012) Thus “while the magnitude of the stressor is clearly an important factor, it does not define trauma. This is because trauma is not in the event itself: rather, trauma resides in the nervous system.” (Levine, 2010, 4) It is when unresolved emotions triggered by adverse events are not allowed to complete their cycle that creates the long-term negative impacts associated with experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. With trauma the self-protective survival process has gone haywire and thus children and adults need support to release this highly-charged state and return to a relaxed alert state and physiological homeostasis.
At-risk children include children who had physical exposure to a traumatic event, children who witnessed a traumatic event, who were near the location of a disaster or incident, who had preexisting mental health issues, whose caregivers experienced emotional difficulty, who had preexisting or consequent family life stressors such as divorce or loss of job, those with previous loss or trauma experiences, and children with a limited support network. Various factors influence a child's ability to respond appropriately and complete the cycle outlined above. These include the event itself (intensity of the event, whether there were multiple events, if the event was prolonged), the child’s physical characteristics (which include age, overall fitness, and constitution which is a combination of genetics, temperament, and early environment), external resources available to the child such as a secure attachment to a safe adult and healthy outlets for stress, the child’s skills/capabilities (such as developmental level) and the quality of the care the child receives immediately after the frightening incident. (Levine, 2007, 72) Another influencing factor is the number of traumatic events to which a child is exposed.
Some factors that can cause trauma are hospitalization/medical trauma, experiences of abuse (physical, verbal and sexual), traumatic natural disasters/events, being a refugee of war or terrorism, community and school violence, neglect (physical and emotional), traumatic grief and death, and witnessing domestic violence.
Trauma in children can manifest in a multitude of ways such as hyperactivity, sleep problems such as nightmares or refusing to go to sleep, dissociation and flashbacks, being hyper-vigilant, repetitive play, emotional numbing, regressive behaviors such as bed-wetting or thumb sucking, self-harm, difficulty with regulating emotions and arousal, and development of sensory triggers. The child may seem spacey/detached/distant and may display avoidance of things that remind them of the traumatic event and may withdrawal from friends and social activities i.e. show avoidance of intimacy and aversion of physical and emotional closeness that leads to feelings of vulnerability. It is important to keep in mind that since infants and children are “less able to defend themselves, they are more vulnerable than adults to retaining an excess of this highly-charged arousal energy.” (Levine, 2007, 41) This means that children need specific directed help from adults to discharge this excess energy and return to a relaxed state of alertness. Without this guidance, the unresolved energy will find expression in a wide array of behaviors and symptoms as listed above.
In order to mitigate and heal the effects of trauma or chronic high levels of stress we must reduce the stress the individual is experiencing and help move any residual trauma out of the body. Held trauma can be seen in hypertonic muscles and chronic health concerns such as insomnia, headaches, tight/restricted psoas (pelvic issues), and nervous system dysfunction. In order to reduce stress, it’s important to recognize that many things may cause toxic levels of stress, especially for neurologically fragile children or those with sensitive nervous systems (such as with autism, HSP or SPD). There are big T traumas such as physical or sexual abuse and there are the frequent little t traumas or stress causing conditions that accumulate over time. It is also important to note that a common protective strategy in young children is to run toward their adult attachment figure, thus for a child to resolve a trauma there needs to be a safe emotionally stable adult available for the child to turn to.
Children who have experienced trauma are vulnerable to living in a dysregulated state of arousal. Frequently, accompanying this dysregulation are symptoms of sensory sensitivity, such as hypersensitivity to sounds, touch, and movement. These symptoms in trauma can be accompanied by experiences of freeze/flight/fight. With improved arousal regulation in the context of a safe relationship children show better identification and expression of basic needs (e.g. thirst, touch), greater cognitive organization, improved verbal communication, increased symbolic play in younger children, improved problem solving, greater expression of feelings, greater self-observation and increased social engagement. Massage can help with improving arousal regulation.
Massage offers a number of benefits. “Massage therapy is a noninvasive intervention that may regulate stress-induced autonomic nervous system dysfunction by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and decreasing sympathetic nervous system responses; therefore, acting toward homeostasis.” (Allen 34T) Massage reduces the levels of cortisol, norepinephrine and epinephrine and during massage levels of feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine spike and oxytocin (nurturing, cuddle hormone) is increased. Massage can relieve stress, anxiety, and fear, while improving mood, self-image and trust and can be empowering because the child decides when, how, or even if they will receive massage. Massage can also help with body awareness and boundaries, improve social interaction and behavior, improve the ability to self-regulate and self-soothe, reduce depression, decrease tactile aversion and increase feelings of self-worth and value of self. When parents learn massage this can help reinforce the parent/child bond and empower the parents with techniques they can use to actively participate in their child’s care while alleviating some of their child’s discomfort. Finally, behavioral and physiological functions in children appear to be enhanced by massage therapy including reduced heart rate and blood pressure, healthy growth and development, sleep (helps with nightmares, insomnia, not wanting to go to sleep), attentiveness, and immune function, as well as reduced pain, stress and anxiety.
Note: Not all trauma becomes PTSD. Trauma becomes PTSD when the trauma is prolonged, extreme, or repetitive, which can physically injure the brain i.e. the amygdala stays in the alert state so long it becomes “stuck” there. (Allen 20T)
Note: The sympathetic nervous system is often referred to as the fight-or-flight response. It is what prepares the body for intense physical activity such as suddenly running when a lion jumps out of the bush. The parasympathetic nervous system is what inhibits or slows down many high-energy functions and relaxes the body (it’s the rest-and-digest response). Ideally, after the threat has passed, the body is able to return to a relaxed state but with trauma the nervous system can get stuck and needs help returning to homoeostasis. (see pictures below)
http://www.traumahealing.org/about-se.php for the higher quality original.
“The adult’s first task is to attend to his or her own emotional state, since it’s only in the adult’s calm, competent, and reassuring presence that children find the space to resolve their tensions. Who we are being is more important than what we are doing” (Mate, 2010, XIV) from Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes
For a step-by-step guide to trauma first aid please see Trauma Through A Child’s Eyes by Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline
2. “Our stressors are lower intensity and longer duration-“chronic stressors”…in contrast to “acute stressors,” like straightforward predation. Acute stressors have a clear beginning, middle, and end; completing the cycle- running, surviving, celebrating- is inherently built in. not so with chronic stressors. If our stress is chronic and we don’t take deliberate steps to complete the cycle, all that activated stress just hangs out inside us, making us sick, tired, and unable to experience pleasure...(or with much of anything else)…Our emotion-dismissing culture is uncomfortable with Feels. Our culture says that if the stressor isn’t right in front of us, then we have no reason to feel stressed and so we should just cut it out already. As a result, most peoples idea of “stress management” is either to eliminate all stressors or to just relax, as if stress can be turned off like a light switch… even without medication and an emotion-dismissing culture, our ultra social human brains are really good at self-inhibition, stopping the stress response midcycle because, “Now is not an appropriate time for Feels” we use this self-inhibition in order to facilitate social cooperation-i.e. not freak anybody out. But unfortunately, our culture has eliminated all appropriate times for Feels. We’ve locked ourselves, culturally, into our own fear, rage, and despair. We must build time, space, and strategies for discharging our stress response cycles.” (Nagoski, 2015, 120-121)
“That is the complete stress response cycle, with beginning (“I’m at risk!”), middle (action), and end (“I’m safe!”).” (Nagoski, 2015, 115)
“Emotions are physiological cascades that want to complete their cycles, and they will complete those cycles when you allow them to.” (Nagoski, 2015, 129)
“Stressors of all kinds are constantly impinging on our autonomic nervous system. Too much noise, visual stimulus, crowds, refined sugar, commuting, waiting to get served, pollutants, the news, are just some of the stressors that we must cope with every day.”