As science begins to dig deeper into the stress response, something that’s come up again and again is the concept of childhood trauma creating a long-lasting effect on the human stress response. As someone that has gone through a significant amount of childhood trauma, I can certainly attest to what feels like a completely different stress response than many of my friends.
While a lot of the information supporting this change is theoretical, there have been studies that have linked childhood trauma to serious long-term hormonal consequences.
Physical Notes on Adults Who Suffered Childhood Trauma
It’s becoming more common knowledge as studies continue to roll out that the central nervous system and the stress response can be oversensitive in those who have suffered from childhood trauma. A lack of space and time seems to create an underdeveloped central nervous system, especially in cases of childhood neglect.
The developing biology of the stress response
From the time that you’re born through the time you reach adolescence; your body is hard at work creating a neural network on how to respond to stress in your environment. A constant state of stress during this development, it can create a real imbalance in how the brain not only responds to stress, but how it identifies stress. In adults, this looks like someone that responds to what most people consider minor stressors as if they are major / crisis-inducing events.
Physiological reactions to this stress can ripple to behavioral responses more often than we realize. These responses can come across to other people as overreactive, having major social implications for the person experiencing them.
What this looks like in the real world
Picture this: You’re with a friend and you’re at a restaurant. You order food, and the waitress is clearly annoyed by your request. You might see this and be taken back; “Wow, what a rude waitress!” you might think. Your friend who was a victim of some level of childhood trauma nods in agreement. You notice they look nervous, but nothing out of the ordinary. An hour later, you’re ready to go see your movie, and your friend apologizes and needs to go home.
In most cases it’s difficult to make the connection from the irritated waitress at dinner and leaving early. However, a stress response was triggered in your friend that caused labored breathing, an increased heart rate, maybe some nausea and some muscle tension… This can be extremely uncomfortable.
Over the years, this friend has likely learned that people won’t understand this reaction, and this can create anxiety and often, depression.
The Impact of Social and Environmental Triggers
You’ve probably heard the overwhelming buzz around being “triggered” on social media. It’s something that’s discussed widely, but tends to be misunderstood.
For a person that went through severe trauma throughout their childhood, you will find that there are reminders (or triggers) of their trauma in many places. Depending on the degree and length of time they were traumatized, they might experience triggers weekly, daily, or even hourly.
As the mind encounters these reminders of their trauma, their stress response is triggered to protect them from the perceived threat. When this occurs often, you might observe explosiveness or intense emotional reactions to seemingly minor day to day stressors. This can also build up over several “triggers” or interactions.