The Science of Trauma

Every second of every day, there are thousands of children and teens among us who are caught up in a cycle of trauma and drama; victims of risk factors such as poverty, high-crime neighborhoods, and exposure to drug and alcohol abuse. Victims of physical, sexual, emotional abuse, and/or neglect. Not to mention bearing witness to domestic violence, parental incarceration, or caretaker mental illness.

Extreme and chronic trauma and stress however, especially during childhood, can result in lifelong health and psychological complications when left untreated.

We’ve all seen videos from African safaris showing a lion attacking a gazelle. When the gazelle smells a lion on the prowl, her ears perk up, her nostrils flare, muscles tense. Sensing danger, her body releases adrenaline so she has more sugar in her blood for energy. Her blood pressure raises as does her heart rate, so she can run faster. Her immune system kicks in to heal if she sustains an injury, and all areas of her brain not associated with her immediate survival shut down. She becomes hyper-vigilant. At the same time, cortisol is released to calm those agitated body systems if she survives. In the videos when the lion does catch the gazelle, do you remember how her eyes will glaze over and she’ll stop fighting? As that gazelle is dying and can’t fight or flee, her brain floods with dopamine so she can detach from the trauma and float away.

 

That’s what psychologists call a “freeze” response.

Children who suffer chronic abuse, neglect, bullying, screaming, fear, or regularly witness violence experience the fight/flight/freeze response over and over and over.

 

How does this affect their emotional growth, their developing brain, their physical health? How does this affect their DNA?

It changes it.
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The total lifetime estimated financial costs associated in just one year of child trauma in the U.S. is approximately

$2 trillion.

 

​​This figure doesn’t include prevention and intervention programs, but simply the price for the aftermath.

For perspective, the entire world will spend $174 billion fighting cancer. The government’s response to treating and developing a cure for AIDS will cost taxpayers $34.8 billion.

 

- Center for Disease Control,

2020 Study

IMPACT OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA

COGNITION

  • Impaired readiness to learn

  • Difficulty problem-solving

  • Language delays

  • Problems with concentration

  • Poor academic achievement 

PHYSICAL HEALTH

  • Sleep disorders 

  • Eating disorders 

  • Poor immune system functioning 

  • Cardiovascular disease 

  • Shorter life span 

EMOTIONS

  • Difficulty controlling emotions

  • Trouble recognizing emotions

  • Limited coping skills 

  • Increased sensitivity to stress

  • Shame and guilt

  • Excessive worry, hopelessness 

  • Feelings of helplessness/lack of self-efficacy

BRAIN DEVELOPMENT

  • Smaller brain size

  • Less efficient processing

  • Impaired stress response

  • Changes in gene expression

RELATIONSHIPS

  • Attachment problems/disorders 

  • Poor understanding of social interactions

  • Difficulty forming relationships with peers

  • Inter-generational cycles of abuse and neglect

MENTAL HEALTH

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Negative self-image/low self-esteem

  • Post traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  • Suicidality 

BEHAVIOR

  • Poor self-regulation

  • Social withdrawal

  • Aggression

  • Poor impulse control

  • Risk-taking/illegal activity

  • Sexual acting out 

  • Adolescent pregnancy

  • Drug and alcohol misuse 

The Trauma-Drama Cycle

A child experiencing chronic trauma is a child constantly in flight or fight mode. Eventually the brain and body cannot respond properly and begins to break down.

If exposed to these risk factors routinely, by the time a child is 5-years-old his or her DNA is changed, with an increased risk for disease and early death.

Even more frightening, this DNA damage can be passed

down from generation to generation.

Even more frightening, this DNA damage can be passed

down from generation to generation.

Youth inmates at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School (CTJS) wearing shirts with quotes from Chip St. Clair's memoir The Butterfly Garden 

 

These traumatized young people are more likely to disengage

at home and school, turning inward -- oftentimes resulting in

deviant and self-destructive behavior, delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, gang violence, depression, and low self-worth.

When these kids grow up, they are more likely to develop diabetes, high blood pressure, autoimmune diseases, and mental health disorders.

Study after study shows that traumatized children often have problems with:

  • fear

  • anxiety

  • depression

  • anger and hostility

  • aggression

  • sexually inappropriate behavior

  • self-destructive behavior

  • feelings of isolation and stigma

  • poor self-esteem

  • difficulty in trusting others

  • substance abuse

  • sexual maladjustment

       Behavioral Symptoms:
  • Reenactment of trauma through play

  • Angry outbursts

  • Behavioral inhibition

  • Reckless behaviors
     

        Physical Symptoms:
  • Smaller hippocampal volume

  • Altered metabolism in areas of the brain involved in perception of threat

  • Low basal cortisol levels

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Difficulties with physical contact

    Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Trouble concentrating in school

  • Negative cognitive development

  • Altered cognitive functioning

  • Increased arousal and hyper-vigilance

    Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Emotional numbing

  • Sadness

  • Guilt

  • Low self-esteem

  • Inability to trust other

 70% of all youth in the juvenile justice system have a trauma-related mental health disorder.

Children who have experienced trauma often have relationship problems with peers and family members, problems with acting out, and problems with school performance.

Along with associated symptoms, there are a number of psychiatric disorders that are commonly found in children and adolescents who have been traumatized. One commonly co-occurring disorder is major depression. Other disorders include substance abuse, anxiety disorders, panic disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Additionally, many young PTSD sufferers also experience externalizing disorders such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and conduct disorder.

It should come as no surprise that many of these traumatized young people end up dropping out of school, getting expelled, or find themselves caught up in the juvenile justice system.

At the inception of the juvenile justice system over 100 years ago, society accurately viewed delinquent youth as still developing. The end goal was primarily centered on rehabilitation, not punishment. The objectives of this new system included separation from the adult population for protection and prevention of those youth from being involved in more serious crimes.

However, over the decades and for a multitude of reasons, the juvenile justice system strayed away from this initial blueprint of compassion and reform and instead adopted policies much more aligned with the punitive nature of the adult criminal justice system.

Current Methodology includes:

     •  Probation

     •  Home Detention

     •  Electronic Monitoring

     •  Incarceration in Secure

        Juvenile Detention Facilities

     •  Scared Straight/Boot Camp

But the facts show that these programs have little to no effect in either reducing recidivism or rehabilitating the juvenile.

Our project was created to find alternative ways for traumatized youth to express their emotions. How do we prevent the cycle of drama and trauma that puts our youth at-risk? How do we intervene and help those youth who are lacking the necessary coping tools?

But there is HOPE!

SCBF answers these questions by providing traumatized children and teens powerful and proven mentorship programs grounded in the creative arts, thereby empowering them with healthy coping mechanisms, teaching them necessary life skills, and inspiring them to unlock their potential… literally rewriting not only their future, but their DNA!