Brain Architecture: Building Strong Foundations and Responding to Trauma

(Christine Schneider led our teen workshop on trauma, stress, and how the brain functions. A private practice therapist in Chattanooga, she specializes in working with victims of trauma, early childhood challenges, and those suffering from PTSD. She also works closely with the McNabb Center as a Licensed Professional Counselor and mental health service provider.)

Brain development, which starts at conception, is affected by the genetics and life experiences of a baby’s mother and father. The early years are extremely important because all of us, as young children, must have safety and support to thrive. One way we gain this is through serve-and-return relationships, which work like a ball being tossed back and forth between a child and a caregiver. The child cries (serves), and the caregiver responds (returns) with comfort or another need. A child who does not receive this response, especially if under age 2, will feel that the world is unsafe. At this tender age, the world seems very black and white, and a child who reaches out for interaction feels as though he will die if he doesn’t get a response.

We also discussed how toxic stress disrupts brain development. The three types of stress are positive stress, tolerable stress, and toxic stress. Positive stress is a normal and essential part of healthy development. This type of stress, which is short-term, eventually fades. Tolerable stress is a response to a more severe stressor and is limited in duration. Often triggered by a sudden life change or a traumatic event, tolerable stress can continue to spike for a while after the initial stressor. Eventually, the stress will return to a more natural level (though there is no true baseline). Toxic stress, however, is strong and prolonged and is experienced frequently. The body remains in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode as a result of this stress. Abusive relationships, bullying, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and other stressful or traumatic situations/environments can all cause toxic stress.

The brain is like an air traffic control system, which has executive functioning. This group of skills helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, set goals, make plans and decisions, revise plans, and resist hasty actions. Executive functioning is a KEY biological foundation of school readiness and outcomes in temporal lobe ability. While executive functioning is most sensitive at the development stage, you can learn new functions and build new temporal pathways at any age.

As mentioned previously, many things affect brain development, such as genetics and life experiences. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can include abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual), neglect (physical or emotional), or household dysfunction (mental illness, divorce, substance abuse, incarcerated relatives, or the mother treated violently). I have just listed the conventional ACEs, but we are now beginning to study others, which include poverty, foster care, bullying, unsafe neighborhoods, experiencing racism, and/or witnessing violence. ACEs can help to gauge population risk, individual risk, and individual history. The more ACEs a person has, the greater that individual’s risk for developing health issues and the earlier that person is likely to die. Luckily, we can combat ACEs by showing kids safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and households. 

It is important for us to change the question from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What has happened to you?”

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