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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.