Titus, 6 foot 3 and all smiles, sought executive coaching with me. He wanted to learn better ways to impress upon his superiors that he deserved a promotion. I asked Titus about his background. He was born in upstate New York. As an infant, he was left outside in the winter cold so his parents would not be disturbed by his crying. Rescued by a concerned neighbor, he was placed in a foster home. He witnessed domestic violence between his foster parents. Child protective services removed him from that home after he was beaten by his foster father.
When children grow up with verbal, physical, and sexual abuse, neglect, or witness violence, the stress from those experiences directly impacts the development of the brain. Specifically, early childhood maltreatment stunts the development of the hippocampus, the seat of long-term memory. The greater the number of adverse early childhood events, the greater the impairment of the development of the hippocampus.
Emotional abuse produces a different effect. Those who reported emotional abuse in childhood showed a thinning in the parts of the brain that process self-awareness (prefrontal cortex) and help us understand and cope with our own emotions (medial temporal lobe). Thinning in these regions of the brain help explain the high rates of anxiety and depression in those who have experienced emotional abuse and neglect (Aghamohammadi-Sereshki, A, et al, 2021; Teicher, M. H. et al 2012).
The good news is that the brain grows, adapts, and changes with new experiences—and building and maintaining social connections protects the health of your brain. Seeking out new relationships can help you heal, cope with stress, and recover from trauma.
During times of great stress, we often isolate from others. I hear clients say they do not want to bring anyone down or cause their loved ones to worry. During times like these, many find help from psychotherapy, which uses psychological tools, rather than medical ones, to help people with emotional, behavioral, or mental issues. A licensed psychotherapist provides a safe and supportive environment for self-awareness so that survivors can learn how to manage emotions effectively and soothe themselves.
Your Adaptable Brain
Your brain can adapt as it learns new skills to manage difficult emotions. Healing stems from psychotherapy experiences that include:
- A safe, supportive, and trusting relationship with the therapist.
- Stress management strategies.
- Exploration of emotions, thoughts, and actions.
- Fostering a fresh outlook on problems.
The therapeutic relationship provides healing strategies for survivors. As one learns to cope with stress and manage difficult emotions, brain chemistry changes over time. Survivors learn to strengthen and build healthy relationships outside of therapy.
For some people, severe symptoms require medical help. Medication can help them improve their functioning. Studies show that antidepressant medication can spur new growth in the hippocampus (Malberg, J. E. 2021). This new growth helps promote positive behavioral changes, like exercise and socializing, that help people recover from anxiety and depression.
Many survivors derive healing from strong loving relationships, friendships, and support groups. Studies show that meaningful cognitive improvements can occur even when a person is connecting through online social media (Mintzer, J. et al 2019).
Survivors of abuse often flourish through what psychologists call post-traumatic growth. Character often grows from adversity. Many survivors develop unique strengths and talents as a direct result of trauma. Growth from traumatic events includes:
- Self-confidence: “If I could survive this, I can handle anything.”
- Courage: “I already know that scary things happen. Everyday risks are nothing in comparison.”
- Gratitude: “I’m grateful that I survived. I appreciate all the little things life has to offer.”
- Empathy: “I care about others who suffer trauma as I did. I feel fortunate that I can offer support to others.”
Like mangrove trees adapt to brackish and salty water, survivors adapt to harsh conditions and even flourish. When you move from a poisonous ecosystem to a healthier one, your brain adapts to the new fuel.
Let me return to the story of Titus.
Eventually, he was adopted by a loving family, at age four.
I asked him about his rough beginning and how that differs from his current life. “I’m grateful for my adoptive parents. They loved me and gave me everything I needed. They love my wife and kids, too. I think I appreciate them more than if they were my biological parents. They didn’t have to take me in. They chose me. I want them to be proud of the man I’ve become,” he said.
Titus survived abuse, neglect, and violence. Loving relationships that included adoptive parents, friends, and his church community helped his brain grow, adapt, and heal from his early trauma. Titus felt gratitude and pride for his loving family, and to my eyes, he gave a lot of love back to them, too.
Titus developed several strengths that allowed him to flourish. Rather than dwelling on the suffering he endured as a child, he lived with gratitude for the loving-kindness he received. He had seen the worst of human behavior but chose to focus on the best. Through his work, family, and community relationships he felt his life had meaning and significance.
No matter how rough our early upbringing, warm relationships can strengthen our resilience to stress. Close meaningful relationships can also help us survive longer.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Aghamohammadi-Sereshki, Arash, Nicholas J. Coupland, Peter H. Silverstone, Yushan Huang, Kathleen M. Hegadoren, Rawle Carter, Peter Seres, and Nikolai V. Malykhin. 2021. "Effects of Childhood Adversity on the Volumes of the Amygdala Subuclei and Hippocampal Subfields in Individuals with Major Depressive Disorder." Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience 46(1). 186-195. doi:10.1503/jpn.200034.
Malberg, Jessica E., Rene Hen, and Torsten M. Madsen. 2021. "Adult Neurogenesis and Antidepressant Treatment: The Surprise Finding by Ron Duman and the Field 20 Years Later." Biological Psychiatry 90(2). 96-101. joi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2021.01.010.
Mintzer, Jacobo, Keaveny Anne Donovan, Arianne Zokas Kindy, Sarah Lenz Lock, Lindsay R. Chura, and Nicholas Barracca. 2019. "Lifestyle Choices and Brain Health." Frontiers in Medicine 6(204) 1-11. doi:10.3389/fmed.2019.00204.
Teicher, M. H., and J. A. Samson. 2016. "Annual Research Review: Enduring Neurobiological Effects of Childhood Abuse and Neglect." Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 57: 241-266.