Relational childhood trauma often refers to forms maltreatment such as physical and sexual abuse, but it can also be used to describe covert forms of mistreatment such as abandonment, enmeshment, parent-child role reversal, verbal abuse, love-withdrawal, and many other forms of emotional abuse.
Relational trauma can be difficult for children, caregivers, and outside observers to recognize. Sometimes, even parents see their less-than-nurturing behavior as “normal” and even in the child’s best interest. This allows the mistreatment to persist throughout much of childhood—and even into adulthood—and have insidious effects on emotional development.
Recent studies have shown that a child’s neurophysiological development changes in response to abuse and relational trauma. This, in turn, results in changes in learning patterns, behavior, beliefs, identity, self-worth, and interpersonal connection that carry consequences long into adulthood. Although some children do manage to emerge from a history of abuse and neglect relatively unharmed—thanks to personal resilience or to having had a restorative relationship with a primary caregiver that countered the effects of the abuse—most will developed one or more of a range of behavioral health disorders, which include depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD.
PTSD Treatment for the Whole Brain
Fortunately, there are effective treatments available for individuals who struggle with PTSD due to childhood relational trauma. Recent research has indicated that the brain is more malleable than Neuroscientists once thought. Neurobiological pathways that were sub-optimally organized due to relational trauma can be re-organized by the application of appropriate treatment techniques.
Social experience and therapeutic interventions that involve talking with others (e.g. group therapy and 12-step programs) can have meaningful effects on gene expression, physiological processes, and brain function. Effective treatment generally involves the creation of a secure therapeutic environment where raw, painful, thoughts and emotions associated with past trauma can be safely explored and metabolized so that personal and interpersonal well-being can be restored. The Meadows has been offering this kind of treatment for decades. But, in addition to “talk therapies,” which work on the prefrontal cortex, or “conscious” area of the brain, it is also critical to reorganize the pathways that stem from the limbic, or “unconscious” areas of the brain. This is the fundamental concept behind the integration of the Brian Center into all of Meadows Behavioral Healthcare’s treatment programs.
In childhood, the unconscious brain perceives disconnection from a primary caregiver as a threat to the child’s survival. Babies cannot survive without being provided with food, shelter, and warmth from an adult. If a baby’s brain detects a lack of interest or hostility from their caregiver, they will panic due to a subconscious fear of abandonment. If you are a child whose brain perceives this potential threat on a daily basis, you will likely to get stuck in a hyper-vigilant fight, flight, or freeze mode. This is a simplified definition of PTSD.
In order to cope with the extremely uncomfortable feelings associated with the perpetual fight, flight or freeze reactions, individuals with PTSD or a history of trauma often deliberately dissociate from their bodies and from the present moment. At The Meadows, each PTSD patient has an opportunity to engage with cutting-edge biofeedback and neurofeedback equipment. These devices and techniques teach them how to master their own physiological and psychological responses to real and perceived stressors. As they gain control over their involuntary responses to stress their entire nervous system learns how to re-regulate itself. One of the most extraordinary benefits of the Brain Center is that its technology allows us to take an autonomic tone reading at the beginning of a patient’s treatment period and identify a baseline arousal pattern. We then can identify specific equipment for them to utilize in the Brian Center based on their unique patterns. At the end of their treatment period, we take another reading to see how their arousal patterns have changed. The numbers tell us that the patients’ nervous systems are significantly better organized and better regulated once they’ve completed treatment.
Our patient’s progress isn’t entirely due to the Brain Center, of course. But, it is a great complementary learning tool that greatly enhances the effectiveness of our 6-week, holistic, and integrated inpatient programs. The changes we see in patients when they leave a Meadows Behavioral Healthcare program are truly phenomenal.
For more information about the Brain Center or any of our programs, please call 800-244-4949.