Stress Disorders Including Anxiety and Depression Caused by Early Life Experiences
On this page: How can emotional or psychological trauma be distinguished from stress? | Why is emotional trauma a brain matter? | How does emotional trauma in infancy make us vulnerable to trauma later in life? | What kinds of experience trigger emotional or psychological trauma? | What are the symptoms of emotional trauma?
A stress response that fails to return to a state of equilibrium becomes unresolved psychological/emotional trauma . Emotional or psychological trauma is the extreme end of the stress disorder continuum. It is stress run amuck –a deregulation of the nervous system that remains fixed and contributes to lifelong mental, emotional and physical disorders including anxiety and depression. Emotional or psychotically trauma can result from such common occurrences as an auto accident, the breakup of a significant relationship, a humiliating or deeply disappointing experience, the discovery of a life-threatening illness or disabling condition, or other similar situations. Traumatizing events can take a serious emotional toll on those involved, even if the event did not cause physical damage.
The word trauma brings to mind the effects of such major events as war, rape, kidnapping, abuse, torture, or other similar assault. The emotional aftermath of such events, recognized by the medical and psychological communities, and increasingly by the general public, is known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But traumatic stress has a broader definition then PTSD alone provides . Traumatic stress leads to lifelong chronic physical disabilities, learning disabilities, relationship problems and emotional disorders including anxiety and depression and can be caused by seemingly benign experiences in infancy and early childhood. This new field, early-life relational or developmental trauma, is less familiar, even to professionals, but offers a new approach to healing a wide range of lifelong mental, emotional and physical disorders.
If we can calm ourselves by ourselves or communicate our distress to people who care about us, and are able to return to a state of equilibrium following a stressful event, we are in the realm of stress. If instead, we become frozen in a state of active emotional intensity or a state of fear, or if we withdraw or become depressed, we are experiencing emotional trauma –though we may not always be consciously aware of the level of distress we are experiencing.
One way to tell the difference between stress and emotional trauma is by looking at the outcome – how much residual effect an upsetting event is having on our lives, relationships, and overall functioning. Traumatic distress can be distinguished from routine stress by assessing the following
Our brains are structured into three main parts, long observed in autopsies:
Because of the development of brain scan technology, scientists can now observe the brain in action, without waiting for an autopsy. These scans reveal that trauma actually changes the structure and function of the brain, at the point where the frontal cortex, the emotional brain and the survival brain converge. A significant finding is that brain scans of people with relationship difficulties, social and emotional disorders, learning problems, and problems related to emotional intelligence reveal similar structural and functional irregularities of the brain as those identified with PTSD.
Poor or inadequate relationship with a primary caretaker in infancy and early childhood influences the brain and creates developmental or relational trauma. Sources of developmental or relational trauma include the following:
• f orced separation very early in life from primary caregiver;
Children who fail to receive an adequate attachment bond with their primary caretaker because of abuse or unintentional neglect lack neurological means to calm, focus and sooth themselves. This lack of resiliency makes such individuals more at risk for traumatic experience in the future. Without the ability to remain calm and stay focused in the face of painful, difficult and threatening experiences, we are overwhelmed and become traumatized.
It is acknowledged that early life trauma creates a vulnerability for experiencing future traumatic responses . For fuller insight on the causes of psychological/emotional trauma see the adult trauma history questionnaire found in the professional section of this site.
Psychological trauma can result from:
Other potential sources of psychological trauma are often overlooked including:
There are common effects or conditions that may occur following a traumatic event. Sometimes these responses can be delayed, for months or even years after the event. Often, people do not even initially associate their symptoms with the precipitating trauma. The following are symptoms that may result from a more commonplace, unresolved trauma, especially if there were earlier, overwhelming life experiences:
Common effects of emotional trauma on interpersonal relationships:
Common personal and behavioral effects of emotional trauma:
The following additional symptoms of emotional trauma are commonly associated with a severe precipitating event, such as a natural disaster, exposure to war, rape, assault, violent crime, major car or airplane crashes, or child abuse. Extreme symptoms can also occur as a delayed reaction to the traumatic event.
Re-experiencing the Trauma
Emotional Numbing and Avoidance
In this section of the trauma resources site you will find:
A lead article, titled Relationship Advice: How Understanding Adult Attachment Can Help on attachment that explains how our first intimate relationship sets the stage for future relationships. You will also find references to other internet resources on this and related subjects
Trainings and other events that focus on the relational trauma and its aftermath.
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