woman struggling at counselor's office with past issues

How Childhood Trauma Can Lie Dormant and then Bam! 

Trauma, and the many ways it can occur, is one of the most important types of information for all of us to understand and appreciate, mostly because it affects nearly everyone and influences our communities and our society in so many powerful ways.

According to the research in the outstanding book, The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain by Louis Cozolino: “When trauma occurs in early development, the [brain’s] hemispheres grow to be less coordinated and integrated, resulting in problems of an effective regulation and positive social awareness. People with histories of childhood abuse and neglect have been shown to have smaller corpus callosum and are more likely to suffer from symptoms of PTSD. Their brains have fewer connecting fibers available to integrate right and left processes, and their development is characterized by decreased lateral integration.”

While all the scientific jargon may be challenging to fully understand, the bottom line is there is science-based evidence of how trauma alters the physiology of the brain, which is one way to account for some of the ways someone can be impacted later in life as a result of early childhood trauma.

The more we can learn about the nature of trauma, the more we can understand how it can impact people, which can lead to greater compassion and a willingness to help those who suffer from its impact.

One aspect of trauma, especially childhood trauma, is that it can lie dormant within a person for years, and even decades, until something triggers it. It can seem like it comes out of the blue, but in reality, it comes out of how the brain has absorbed that trauma and how it can lie dormant within the brain’s complicated memory system.

The ACEs research gives us some clues about this principle of trauma lying dormant until something activates it. Because the research was designed to see how people later in life were impacted by their adverse childhood experiences, it became clear that things like cancer, heart disease, and most of the physical and mental challenges people experienced later in life were the result of those childhood adversities.

Some important observations by trauma experts and journalists:

  • Vincent Felletti, co-author of the original ACEs research: Contrary to conventional belief, time does not heal all wounds, since humans convert traumatic emotional experiences in childhood into organic disease later in life. ‘One does not “just get over” this, ‘not even 50 years later,” 
  • Donna Jackson Nakazawa, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal: “The child who faces Adverse Childhood Experiences will be more likely to develop depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, poor executive function in decision-making–many of which can lead to substance abuse. This may be why, statistically, so many young people first show signs of depression or bipolar disorders in high school, and in college–even kids who just a year or two earlier seemed absolutely fine.”

This information can help us appreciate the power of trauma to wound a person with memories remaining deep in their brain that can be activated later in life. It may be the reason why so many young people today suffer from eating disorders, depression, and suicidal ideations. It explains the possible reason adults experience so many physical ailments later in life.

More than ever, when we look at someone’s confusing or difficult behaviors, or the diseases they may get later in life, let’s not ask the question, “What is wrong with you?” and instead ask “What happened to you?” The originator of this very perceptive quote was shared in Dr. Sandra Bloom’s book, Creating Sanctuary and credited to Joseph Foderaro.

We can have hope in today’s world because so much more is now known about trauma and its impact, as well as ways to help address the issues that it often causes.

Invitation for Reflection

  1. If this information is new to you, notice your first reactions to it. Is it upsetting? Is it revelational? Does it clarify why you or those in your life may have developed physical or mental health problems?
  2. Does this information motivate you to want to do more to help parents and caregivers, organizations that somehow touch the lives of children, and the public in general to learn more about the nature of trauma and most importantly ways to prevent it in the first place? If so, one excellent resource is CTIPP, The Campaign for Trauma Informed Policy and Practice, whose mission it is to promote awareness and changes throughout governmental systems.