As a forensic expert on childhood trauma assessment, I frequently work with children whose lives have been shattered by a traumatic event and are now dominated by a constant sense of danger and frightening emotions. Many of them avoid social interactions and may isolate themselves. They are likely to see themselves as bad and unworthy, and may be at risk for harming themselves. Some are often viewed by others as being irritable, hostile, or aggressive. These children may get into trouble at home or at school for their behavioral problems. Their normal daily functioning is commonly disrupted by intrusive and persistent recollections and sensory re-experiencing of the traumatic event. In addition, they may appear emotionally detached, unable to trust other people, and avoid negative emotions. In cases of sexual abuse, the victims may tend to have sexual fears and unwanted sexual feelings and behaviors.
Childhood trauma can be caused by any situation perceived by the child as frightening and/or overwhelming, and during which the child feels scared and helpless. This situation is often just a one-time event, such as an injury or a natural disaster. But it could also be a long-term ongoing stress, such as physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence, or chronic illness. All such events have a potential to bring on symptoms of emotional and psychological trauma.
Some of the most frequent and well-known psychological and emotional symptoms of trauma include:
It appears to be less known that a traumatic experience can also manifest itself in a form of physiological symptoms such as:
Childhood Trauma Strongly Correlates with a Risk of Future Trauma in Adulthood
Research shows that experiencing childhood trauma can have very negative, long lasting impact on the individual’s emotional, psychological, and physiological well-being in adulthood, especially if not resolved.
Specifically, childhood trauma has been associated with various forms of emotion dysregulation, including stress-reactivity, which is believed to be one of the mechanisms underlying the link between childhood trauma and psychological disorders. For example, research shows that individuals with more severe histories of emotional abuse showed stronger stress-reactivity for anxiety. (1) Individuals with a history of childhood trauma also reported significantly increased emotional reactivity to daily life stress, especially if the trauma event occurred before the age of 10 years. (2)
Research also show that childhood emotional trauma has more influence on interpersonal problems in adult patients with depression and anxiety disorders than childhood physical trauma. A history of childhood physical abuse is related to dominant interpersonal patterns rather than submissive interpersonal patterns in adulthood. These findings provide preliminary evidence that childhood trauma might substantially contribute to interpersonal problems in adulthood. (3)
The brain and the immune system are not fully formed at birth but rather continue to mature in response to the postnatal environment. The two-way interaction between brain and immune system makes it possible for childhood psychosocial stressors to affect immune system development, which in turn can affect brain development and its long-term functioning. Early-life stress predicts later inflammation, and there are striking analogies between the neurobiological correlates of early-life stress and of inflammation. These findings suggest new strategies to remediate the effect of childhood trauma before the onset of clinical symptoms, such as anti-inflammatory interventions. (4)
Furthermore, there is considerable evidence to suggest that adverse early-life experiences have a profound effect on the developing brain. Children who are exposed to sexual or physical abuse or the death of a parent are at higher risk for development of depressive and anxiety disorders later in life. Preclinical and clinical studies have shown that repeated early-life stress leads to alterations in central neurobiological systems, particularly in the corticotropin-releasing factor system, leading to increased responsiveness to stress. Clearly, exposure to early-life stressors leads to neurobiological changes that increase the risk of psychopathology in both children and adults. Additionally, childhood trauma is associated with heightened social stress sensitivity and may contribute to psychotic and affective dysregulation later in life, through a sensitized paranoid and stress response to social stressors. (5)
As presented above, substantial number of studies show associations between early life stress and risk for mental and somatic diseases in later life. Potentially, these findings will allow unprecedented opportunities to improve the precision of current clinical diagnostic tools and the success of interventions.
As of now, we have only limited information about how childhood exposure to traumatic stress is translated into biological risk for psychopathology. Observational human studies and experimental animal models suggest that childhood exposure to traumatic stress can trigger an enduring systemic inflammatory response not unlike the bodily response to physical injury. In turn, these hidden wounds of childhood trauma can affect brain development, key behavioral domains (e.g., cognition, positive valence systems, negative valence systems), reactivity to subsequent stressors, and, ultimately, risk for psychopathology. (6)
Children and adults diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are commonly prescribed antidepressants containing the neurotransmitter serotonin. In psychiatric circles, serotonin has a well-recognized role in the modulation of a number of mood and anxiety disorders. The most common antidepressants include Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft.
Antidepressants introduced since 1990, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) have been used increasingly as first line treatment for depression and psychological trauma in children. The safety of prescribing antidepressants to children (including adolescents) has been the subject of increasing concern in the community and the medical profession, leading to recommendations against their use from government and industry. (7)
Unfortunately, most parents of my pediatric clients are not well informed (if at all) about the serious negative side effects of these medications. Most antidepressants can cause dangerous reactions when combined with certain medications or herbal supplements. At times, an antidepressant can cause high levels of serotonin to accumulate in the body, causing so called Serotonin syndrome. Signs and symptoms of serotonin syndrome include anxiety, agitation, sweating, confusion, tremors, restlessness, lack of coordination and a rapid heart rate.
However, the most alarming fact is that FDA requires that all antidepressants carry black box warnings, the strictest warnings for prescriptions. In some cases, children, teenagers and young adults under 25 may have an increase in suicidal thoughts or behavior when taking antidepressants. In fact, research studies show that the Use of antidepressant drugs in pediatric patients is associated with a modestly increased risk of suicidality. (8) Over the years, I have personally evaluated numerous children struggling with self-harming and suicidal thoughts, while taking antidepressants.
Other negative side effects of antidepressants may include, among others:
Based on my clinical experience, I believe that psychotropic medication can be effective in treatment of certain psychiatric conditions. However, I also believe that due to their negative, often detrimental side effects, psychotropic medications should be used only as a last resort. Unfortunately, many treatment providers will undervalue non-drug treatments that are both safer and more effective. So, let’s look at some of these effective strategies.
If your child is a trauma victim….
Don’t be afraid to communicate with your children about their thoughts and feelings regarding their traumatic experience. Don’t be alarmed if you find your child seeks safety by regressing into a younger age by bedwetting after being fully potty-trained or refusing to be alone. Your comforting, positive, and patient attitude has a significant influence on child’s trauma recovery. Children often tend to blame themselves for their own victimization. Assure your child that he is not responsible for the traumatic event. Give your child a sense of hope and safety.
If you are battling trauma symptoms, there is a variety of non-drug, safe, alternative, and effective healing techniques and practices that can work wonders in trauma recovery for you or your child. If you are currently taking antidepressants or other medication, you can talk to your doctor about safely lowering your doses before getting off the medication completely. You should NEVER stop taking the medication without talking to your doctor first. However, you can start implementing the alternative strategies listed above along with your medication to speed your recovery.
Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. I would also strongly suggest that you join our Facebook group, Finding a Safe Way to Emotional Trauma Recovery where you can post, share, comment, and ask questions related to emotional trauma issues.
Sources For This Article Include:
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