Youth First: Trauma and the Brain | Lifestyles


Childhood trauma is defined as negative childhood experiences that are emotionally painful or distressing. Trauma can be caused by a multitude of things including, but not limited to, physical abuse or neglect, emotional abuse or neglect, sexual abuse, death of a loved one, separation from a family member, poverty, serious medical conditions, accidents, disasters, domestic violence, a relative with mental illness, substance abuse within a family, and incarceration of a member of the family. Ultimately, there are an unlimited number of things that can be classified as traumatic.

What the definition of trauma doesn’t tell you is that trauma actually changes the brain. It overwhelms your thoughts, your emotions and your body. When you experience something that overwhelms you, it can rewire your brain and body.

According to a report from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, not only does trauma cause neurological changes, but it can also cause changes in the immune system and hormonal levels. Additionally, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that children ages 3 to 6 who are exposed to trauma may have difficulty learning in school, be unable to trust others or make friends, show poor skill development, lack self-confidence and may be more likely to experience stomach aches or headaches.

By looking at certain parts of the brain, studies have shown that trauma affects the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that controls emotions. Trauma can make the amygdala overactive. This means that even when there is no danger, the amygdala can still activate a “fight or flight” response in a person. The result can be a panic attack, a flood of emotions, feelings of aggression, or constant stress.

Another part of the brain affected is the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. Trauma can weaken the prefrontal cortex, causing difficulty concentrating or zoning. Finally, trauma also affects the hippocampus. The hippocampus helps store memories. For some people, the hippocampus may have difficulty retaining other memories while keeping the traumatic event as clear as day. For others, the hippocampus blocks some or all of the traumatic memory.

So what can we do to help children who have experienced trauma? One of the most helpful things for a child is to have a caring, stable caregiver who can help regulate these changes and help the child cope better with adversity as they grow. Just one caring and supportive adult can greatly benefit and positively impact a child throughout their life.

It’s also important to seek help from a trained professional when needed, whether through outpatient therapy or even your school’s Youth First social worker. Remember, despite what these children have been through, a caring, supportive adult can make all the difference.

Megan ShakeLSW, is a Youth First Social Worker in Loogootee Elementary, Middle and High Schools in Martin County.

Youth First, Inc. is a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering youth and families. Youth First provides 78 Masters level social workers to 107 schools in 13 Indiana counties. Each year, more than 60,000 youth and families benefit from Youth First’s school social work and after-school programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors and maximize student success. To learn more about Youth First, visit or call 812-421-8336.


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