Childhood Trauma Changes the Brain

Shavaun Scott
3 min readDec 13, 2021

Consequences can be hard to overcome, but there is hope

Photo by Zhivko Minkov on Unsplash

The following is excerpted from my book The Minds of Mass Killers: Understanding and Interrupting the Pathway to Violence (McFarland, 2021). Available through all booksellers.

How the brain adapts to trauma

The fight/flight response is the nervous system’s natural response to a perceived threat and results in the flooding of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol that affect the entire body. This system is designed to help us survive danger in the short term. However, when the threat is sustained, the developing brain makes permanent adaptations, which continue long past the traumatic events.

Children who experience abuse or neglect experience changes in three different brain systems: the threat system, the reward system, and the memory system.

  • Changes in the threat system result in a heightened threat sensitivity called hypervigilance. Hypervigilance can cause one to misinterpret everyday events as threatening as well as misperceive others’ intentions. A person with increased sensitivity to threats may be prone to paranoid thinking.
  • Neglect from caregivers causes changes in the brain’s reward system, which is what motivates our behavior. Over time, the brain responds less actively to positive social cues. This type of change can result in difficulties making friends and reduced motivation for social and academic achievement.
  • Changes in the memory system result in difficulty remembering positive experiences since negative experiences become more prominent in the memory system. When individuals’ memories are primarily negative, they have learned to expect the worst in life and fail to see positive options. Everyday memories can also become less detailed. This type of change is problematic because we all have to draw on positive past experiences to learn how to navigate new situations.

Together these brain adaptations can put children at greater risk of experiencing future mental health conditions. These traumatized children are more apt to experience learning problems, emotional dysregulation, hypersensitivity to stress, and greater impulsivity.

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Shavaun Scott

Psychotherapist and writer, exploring uncommon bravery and shining light on the human experience.