Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Its Relationship to Childhood Trauma
Most people know that some Veterans returning home from overseas where they served under combat conditions are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, did you know that PTSD can also affect those who have never served in the military?
This site is all about raising awareness about complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) that is caused by repeated childhood trauma. However, those who have been exposed to a single event of trauma in childhood also can exhibit the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In this article, we shall examine together post-traumatic stress disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder and their relationship to childhood trauma.
The Definitions of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
To better understand the connection that childhood trauma can have to both PTSD and CPTSD, it is important we examine their definitions.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a traumatic (fear-filled) event that is either experienced or witnessed. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, and severe anxiety.
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (also known as complex trauma disorder) is a mental health disorder that develops in response to prolonged, repeated interpersonal trauma in which the child feels they have little or no chance of escape.
Put side by side it is easy to see the differences between the two diagnoses. However, people can have co-occurring experiences where they suffer the effects of both diagnoses at once with overlapping symptoms.
PTSD Isn’t Just for Veterans
Although PTSD was first described by military physicians trying to understand why some soldiers who had been exposed to battle behaved irrationally upon arriving back behind the lines. Many men were given dishonorable discharges or sent home in disgrace due to their brain malfunctioning after being in situations where they experienced extreme fear and saw things in a battle no one should ever see.
However, children living in homes where terror is a way of life as they experience child abuse themselves or see a loved one injured also can form PTSD. It is when these events are continuous that you add on the hell that is CPTSD. The combination is a deadly mix of despair and fear-ladened living that can lead to suicide.
To be clear, one does not need to experience abuse to form PTSD. Witnessing or being a victim of a car accident, or an incident where the person was filled with fear can cause PTSD.
However, there are far more consequences to trauma for children because of their developing brains and minds. Trauma in childhood is a leading cause of many of our modern diseases and a leading cause of death in the United States and around the world.
PTSD: The Single Event Disorder
One of the greatest differences between PTSD and CPTSD, as we have stated before, is the number of events that cause each. While complex post-traumatic stress disorder is caused by repeated trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder is related to one occurrence happening sometime in a person’s life.
PTSD has horrific symptoms ranging from moderate to severe and includes all of the following each arranged by category (Sourced and Quoted from the Mayo Clinic1)
Symptoms of intrusive memories including:
· Recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of the traumatic event
· Reliving the traumatic event as if it were happening again (flashbacks)
· Upsetting dreams or nightmares about the traumatic event
· Severe emotional distress or physical reactions to something that reminds you of the traumatic event
Symptoms of avoidance may include:
· Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
· Avoiding places, activities or people that remind you of the traumatic event
Negative changes in thinking and mood
Symptoms of negative changes in thinking and mood may include:
· Negative thoughts about yourself, other people, or the world
· Hopelessness about the future
· Memory problems, including not remembering important aspects of the traumatic event
· Difficulty maintaining close relationships
· Feeling detached from family and friends
· Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed
· Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
· Feeling emotionally numb
Changes in physical and emotional reactions
Symptoms of changes in physical and emotional reactions (also called arousal symptoms) may include:
· Being easily startled or frightened
· Always being on guard for danger
· Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much or driving too fast
· Trouble sleeping
· Trouble concentrating
· Irritability, angry outbursts, or aggressive behavior
· Overwhelming guilt or shame
For children 6 years old and younger, signs and symptoms may also include:
· Re-enacting the traumatic event or aspects of the traumatic event through play
· Frightening dreams that may or may not include aspects of the traumatic event
Clearly, PTSD is a serious condition that we must not ignore at any cost.
Co-Occurrence of PTSD and CPTSD in Veterans
Not all the men and women of the military who are sent into dangerous situations come from well-established, non-traumatic, happy homes. Many come from homes that are dysfunctional beyond what every family experiences.
Therefore, our military personnel might be entering a war zone where PTSD may occur already affected by CPTSD. The combination of the two leads to serious mental and physical consequences that can be fatal.
It is only with more research and treatment of veterans that we will truly understand all the health consequences they must endure as the result of living in hell not just as children, but also in combat.
Acknowledging Childhood Trauma Exists
Society as a whole has a great deal of trouble even acknowledging that childhood trauma exists, let alone stand up for the rights of children for safety and health. We tend to want to hide our heads in the proverbial sand and say to ourselves it happens to others in other people’s families, never our own.
However, we are not only speaking of child abuse that can lead to CPTSD but of other trauma’s a child might experience that will haunt them in the form of PTSD.
If a child receives a shock or life-changing event, such as the death of a parent, they are in great danger of forming PTSD either then or later in life. Only the loving, caring, and safety of an adult can mitigate the consequences of forming and living with PTSD.
We must as a society stop hiding from the truth that many children live with every day, that life isn’t a safe thing to go through but that with some prevention we can make the future brighter for children who have been traumatized.
The Injury to the Brain Caused by PTSD
Childhood trauma has grave psychological consequences for its victims and, unfortunately, interpersonal violence that is either experienced or seen by children is common. While the emotional consequences are well-documented, less is known and reported on the biological damage done especially to a child’s brain.
A paper published in journal Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience explored the brain regions involved in the stress response to seeing or experiencing childhood trauma including the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex plus their connection to PTSD.
The damage to these vital brain regions seems to be caused by traumatic stress with increased release of cortisol and norepinephrine, hormones that ready the body for the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response.
According to the paper, findings from animal studies have been extended to patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and have shown other regions of the brain are affected as well such as the anterior cingulate, decreased medial prefrontal/anterior cingulate function. In laymen’s terms, people who have experienced childhood trauma have an incidence of memory and emotional regulation problems because of the brain regions that are affected. (Bremner, 2006)2
Undetected (Delayed) PTSD
Some people do not show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder until years later. This finding comes from a paper published in World Psychiatry, which states that delayed-onset PTSD is deadly because of the physical harm it does to a person who has experienced trauma. (McFarlane, 2010)3
These physical problems are accompanied by brain changes that even those who have been traumatized but seemingly have no symptoms that are like those who have been diagnosed and are being treated for PTSD.
Clearly, PTSD at any age must not be ignored. Anyone who is involved in a traumatic event, especially children, are subject to severe brain changes that can become real challenges later.
Occurrences of delayed-onset PTSD are only now coming to light as a problem, so more research is needed to truly understand and identify how delayed-onset PTSD affects people’s lives.
1. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967
2. Bremner, J. D. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8(4), 445. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181836/#:~:targetText=PTSD%20is%20characterized%20by%20specific,and%20concentration%2C%20and%20startle%20responses.&targetText=Brain%20regions%20that%20are%20felt,amygdala%2C%20and%20medial%20prefrontal%20cortex.
3. McFarlane, A. C. (2010). The long‐term costs of traumatic stress: intertwined physical and psychological consequences. World Psychiatry, 9(1), 3–10. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2816923/