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Psychological Trauma and Its Neurobiological Impacts on Transitional Aged Youth

While the word trauma is typically used in conversation to describe stressful situations that individuals are faced with on an everyday basis, not all stress changes their neurobiology or ability to feel safe in an emotional manner . Contrarily, psychological trauma has been described as chronic traumatic stress that can impact individuals both physically and emotionally, and that affects the brain circuitry. Traumatic experiences that leave people feeling alone, overwhelmed, and unable to carry out their everyday routines can lead to changes in both the structure and function of the brain.

Transition age youth are young individuals who range between the ages of 16 to 24. During early to mid-adolescence, the brain undergoes rapid structural, functional, and neurochemical changes . However, during the transition years from late adolescence to early adulthood, neurodevelopment tends to occur at a slow and focused pace. This is because there is an emphasis on strengthening neural connections during this period. Strong neural connections allow individuals to have the necessary tools to regulate their emotions, problem-solve, plan for the future, and make decisions.

When an individual deals with chronic stress or early life adversity throughout their childhood, they are faced with physical and mental health difficulties during their emerging and later adulthood years. Additionally, when an individual experiences a traumatic event during his or her emerging years into young adulthood, the brain areas that are involved in responding to traumatic or adverse experiences throughout life, undergo significant developmental changes. Furthermore, improper development of the brain in transitional aged youth can put them at a higher risk for developing mental health problems, which can lead to challenges in later adulthood.

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder have been associated with untreated and unresolved trauma. In her article, Derenne expresses that eating disorders are common among children and adolescents and may continue, resurface, or even develop in young individuals who during the transition period from adolescence to adulthood . While having an eating disorder doesn’t mean that a person has experienced a traumatic event, an eating disorder can arise from a traumatic experience. It is uncertain why exactly trauma contributes to the development of an eating disorder. However, it is known that trauma leads to disruption in the nervous system, which makes it difficult for individuals to manage their emotions. Dysregulation in the neurobiological systems of those with anorexia nervosa may be linked to an imbalance between frontostriatal systems, which causes impingement on the primary somatosensory cortex, secondary parietal cortex and tertiary insular cortex levels of body representation. Additionally, impairments in the nervous systems of those with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder may be due to alterations in the mesolimbic reward pathway. This can cause them to carry out eating disorder behaviors or to turn to other addictions as a way to cope with the uncomfortable emotions that often result from a traumatic experience.

Childhood mistreatment, such as emotional abuse and sexual abuse can often lead to trauma, which can then hide in the form of an eating disorder. Sexual trauma may specifically cause body image issues, which can be related to self-criticism that can be developed after sexual trauma. In their study, Dunkley, Masheb, & Grilo were able to find that self-criticism mediates the relationship between emotional abuse, depressive symptoms, and body dissatisfaction. While some people may wish to be thin to reduce their attractiveness, others may wish to gain weight, typically those with binge eating disorder, to accomplish the same goal.

Moreover, like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders have high rates of dissociation. Eating disorder behaviors can be used as barriers between an individual and his or her disturbing thoughts, emotions, or memories that may be associated with PTSD . The behaviors of those who suffer from eating disorders can be thought of in a symbolic psychological manner. Purging can be conveyed as a way for someone to get rid of unwanted emotions, memories, or symptoms. Contrarily, binging can be conveyed as someone’s way of filling a void. While it is not possible for people to get rid of unwanted feelings, memories, or symptoms by emptying their stomachs or for them to fill an emotional emptiness with food, both can provide relief and function as a coping mechanism for those suffering from PTSD or other unresolved trauma that may or may not be subconscious. Thus, eating disorders in transitional aged youth that are due to psychological trauma may impact their academic or occupational trajectories, as well as their abilities to be successful in the navigation of living independently, increasing work or educational autonomy, and adult relationships.

Oftentimes, psychological trauma that is accompanied by intense fear, horror, and helplessness, can lead to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In his study, Dr. Herringa reviews the similarities and differences between the structural and functional brain abnormalities in pediatric PTSD and adult PTSD . He was able to find that youth with PTSD exhibit both overt and developmental abnormalities in their frontolimbic circuits, which may contribute to increasing threat reactivity and declining emotion regulation capacity. This finding conveys that PTSD may differ in youth compared to adults both due to the higher stress sensitivity of developing neural systems, as well as delayed expression of the full effects of childhood trauma exposure. This could be due to the sensitization of the cortico-amygdala neural circuitry, which threatens vigilance and response systems and occurs as a result of early-life adversity. While there are numerous neurobiological factors that can contribute to PTSD, there are a few that have been examined more closely. For example, low cortisol levels at the time of a traumatic event have been found to predict subsequent development of PTSD. Thus, low levels of cortisol might be a pre-existing risk factor that can lead to the development of PTSD. Additionally, low cortisol levels can promote unopposed autonomic and neuroendocrine responses to stress, as well as increased fear conditioning and traumatic memory consolidation. The hippocampus is another component of the neurobiological system that has been predicted to play a role in the development of PTSD. It has been found that individuals with PTSD have a smaller hippocampus. Over the years, there has been a debate on whether the hippocampus is smaller in victims of PTSD because trauma exposure causes it to shrink or because it was already small prior to trauma exposure. In addition to the psychological suffering imposed on transitional aged youth from PTSD, the neurobiological changes their brains undergo can be associated with lower academic achievement, and increasing incidence of depression, suicide attempts, and substance abuse into adulthood.

Over the past three decades, there has been increased recognition of depression in children and adolescents . Depression is another mental health problem that can develop in transitional aged youth as a result of psychological trauma, such as child abuse, domestic violence, and bullying. Early depressive episodes can persist and/ or recur in adult life. Although there is a minimal increase in brain size after early-school-age years, grey and white matter can go through changes throughout adolescence and into early adulthood. While the changes that occur in the grey matter are non-linear and region-specific, there is a simultaneous linear increase in white matter density. The changes in grey matter take the form of increased myelination of different cortical connections and/or synaptic pruning and the changes in white matter are associated with increases in the diameter and myelination of the axons that form the fiber tracts along with increased neural size and proliferation of glia. Disturbances in these developmental patterns can adversely affect behavioral, emotional, and cognitive control in individuals.

Therefore, those who deal with traumatic events during their transitional period from adolescence to adulthood tend to experience neurobiological changes, which can lead to problems later on in life.

Links:

Traumatic experiences during childhood affects the brain: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/greater-the-sum-its-parts/201703/how-trauma-in-childhood-affects-the-brain

Psychological trauma has been associated with eating disorders: https://www.verywellmind.com/the-influence-of-abuse-trauma-on-disordered-eating-1138267

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and trauma affect brain functioning: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mindful-self-express/201809/how-ptsd-and-trauma-affect-your-brain-functioning

Traumatic events can lead to various reactions in adolescents: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/trauma-and-teenagers-common-reactions

©2019 by Erie Coalition for a Trauma Informed Community.
Erie County
Pennsylvania