This is the eighth and second-to-last installment in our conversation on past trauma. What kicked off this series was a comment from a reader who challenged me to recognize the past trauma in my life. Along the way, I was guided by readers who possessed both the eloquence and courage to share their experiences in surviving trauma and abuse.
Not uncoincidentally, over the past two years, I have been engaged in a form of therapy with my brother, which involved the two of us talking about our childhoods over a beer or two. This formed the basis of my first piece - A New Conversation - where I concluded:
Basically, my meds got me stable while my lifestyle and coping tools got me healthy. But getting me whole demanded the courage to enter some very dark spaces and embrace a very scared and very fragile boy. It is still an ongoing process.
In my second piece - The Conversation Continues - I noted that, contrary to public misconceptions, trauma is not just a phenomena of “the mind,” divorced completely from the biology of the brain. Early life experience actually shapes the brain. For instance, women abused in childhood end up with a sensitized brain system, with a high concentration of CRF receptors. CRF is a stress hormone that figures in the fight or flight response.
In a sense our brains have been wired for constant danger. This vulnerability, assisted by our genes, leads to anxiety, depression, mania, psychosis, and all manner of other things that can go wrong.
In my third piece - What We are Up Against - we looked at how the cumulative effects of living in a constant state of siege, where the body is perpetually primed for fight or flight - sets off a series of processes that result in brain cell damage, typically to the point that these neurons are in no shape to handle the next crisis. Entire brain systems may be compromised. We lose our capacity to think and feel and regulate our behavior. As I concluded:
And there you are, age five, born into the wrong family, the wrong circumstances, already with a weakened frontal cortex.
In Part Four - Genes, Epigenetics, and Development - we looked at why some brains may be more resilient to trauma than others. Essentially, this involves a complex two-step between biology and environment. A series of studies published over 2002-2003 linked certain gene variations to how we respond to whatever life may happen to throw our way. In many cases, depression may be the result of a genetically vulnerable brain overwhelmed by current life stresses or past traumas.
Epigenetics and development involve how these genes get switched on or off. In other words, even though we may be genetically vulnerable to stress and bipolar, in the right environment these genes may never get activated to the point of turning our brains against us. But heaven help if we are born wrong. Even in the womb, we may be exposed to gene-triggering stressors. Mind-bogglingly, our epigenetic hair-triggers may be transmitted across generations.