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Trauma

Resiliency and the Brain

The power of neuroplasticity when combating complex childhood trauma.

Key points

  • Neuroplasticity can aid in the healing of complex childhood trauma.
  • With the proper environment and support, children can significantly reduce or even reverse the impact of trauma.
  • Consistent patterns and practice of prosocial and coping skills can strengthen resiliency.

The human brain is a marvel.

It is generally made up of three parts. The hindbrain regulates our automatic responses and reflexes. It heightens our senses in a way that prepares us for action during moments of perceived threat. The midbrain processes. This can include the processing of experiences, emotions, memories, and other information. Lastly, the forebrain governs and regulates. It is responsible for higher-order thinking, communication skills, and overall stability within the body. We operate at peak performance level when these parts work synchronously together.

As if this streamlined system was not wondrous enough, add neuroplasticity to the list of the brain’s remarkable achievements.

Neuroplasticity and Complex Childhood Trauma

Neuroplasticity is essentially the brain’s ability to respond and reorganize itself based on repetitive experiences and environmental influences. This could be considered detrimental in circumstances such as complex childhood trauma, as the reorganization of the brain based on adverse experiences could negatively impact a child’s cognitive, social, emotional, and physical well-being (Kirouac & McBride, 2009).

While the still-developing brain of a child is susceptible to harmful influences due to neuroplasticity, it is actually the combination of neuroplasticity and a child’s developing brain that also provides the greatest opportunity for overcoming adverse experiences (Volkow, Gordon, & Freund, 2021).

Neuroplasticity allows the brain to regenerate, repair, modify, and heal. Because of this, the effects of trauma can be remarkably decreased or, in some cases, reversed (Thompson, 2014). In fact, research conducted by Leitch (2017) supported the idea that brain plasticity can aid in strengthening overall wellness and prosocial behaviors.

How Neuroplasticity Can Aid in Trauma Recovery

To heal from childhood trauma, a young person needs to be surrounded by the proper supports within an appropriate environment. These supports provide consistent practice of resiliency skills and prosocial behaviors, which can then lead to affirming and reinforcing thought patterns. In time, positive patterns and practice lead to a rewiring of the brain. Negative byproducts of trauma on the brain are reconfigured, and much of the impact of childhood adversity is, in essence, pushed out to make way for new and more favorable neural pathways.

There are a number of approaches that could be used to capitalize on the power of neuroplasticity to promote healing. Providing opportunities for growth is one potential approach. This includes opportunities to learn new skills, to explore hobbies, and to engage in activities that allow one to recognize one's own strengths. Setting aside time for gratitude is another potential approach, as this trains the brain to seek the positives and to remain hopeful. Providing the chance to connect and contribute, such as allowing opportunities to form and maintain healthy relationships, to contribute through volunteer work or other acts of service, and to openly discuss morals and values, creates more prosocial behaviors and enhances one’s sense of self and purpose. Other approaches to rewiring the trauma-impacted brain include providing (a) consistent safety and support, (b) tools and structures to maintain health and wellness (physical, mental, emotional, and hygienic), (c) space for meaning-making and self-acceptance, and (d) a sense of choice and control.

When trauma affects the young brain, neuroplasticity can act as the grounding force that sets the stage for healing. With proper supports, environment, and consistent care, the negative effects of complex childhood trauma can be decreased, and young people can go on to live healthy and satisfying lives.

References

Kirouac, S., & McBride, D. L. (2009). The Impact of Childhood Trauma on Brain Development: A Literature Review and Supporting Handouts. Online Submission.

Leitch, L. (2017). Action steps using ACEs and trauma-informed care: a resilience model. Health & Justice, 5(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40352-017-0050-5.

Thompson, R.A. (2014). Stress and Child Development. Future of Children, 24 (1), 41-59.

Volkow ND, Gordon JA, Freund MP. The Healthy Brain and Child Development Study—Shedding Light on Opioid Exposure, COVID-19, and Health Disparities. JAMA Psychiatry. 2021;78(5):471–472. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2020.3803

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