Photo by Arwan Sutanto on Unsplash

Complex PTSD results from prolonged or chronic traumatic exposure as is the case with child abuse. For a child, there’s no viable escape and the people who are supposed to love, protect, and care for the child… don’t. Most child abuse includes just enough carrots – good times – to be utterly confusing. The good times always seem like they will last… until the next insult, punch, grope, withdrawal…. Child abuse includes psychological abuse, such as threats of violence, gaslighting, game playing, name calling, insults, and withholding love. The silent treatment is emotional abuse and very destructive. Physical abuse and sexual abuse of children rarely exist without some form of psychological abuse and sometimes the additional awful uncertainty of someone under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol.  

The amygdala is generally understood as the fear center of the brain. Amygdala comes from the Greek word for almond (αμύγδαλο or amygdalo) and there are actually two almond-shaped structures, one in each hemisphere of the brain. When amygdalae were removed in rats, the rats lost their fear of everything, including cats.

Wikimedia Commons: BodyParts3D, © The Database Center for Life Science licensed under CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.1 Japan.

The amygdala of an abused child experiences increased and persistent activation. The brain is a complex organ that we’re still learning about, but it is clear that chronic child abuse alters both brain chemistry and brain structures.

The alterations to amygdala can create problems with emotional regulation, a propensity to emotional extremes, as well as reactions to triggers, particularly emotional triggers. Essential to decoding emotions, changes in the amygdala affect one’s perceptions of one’s own emotions, emotional situations, and the emotions of others. Obviously, these kinds of misperceptions can make relationships, and life in general, difficult.

Childhood sexual abuse changes who you are. It changed generations of women on my mother’s side of the family. I’ve been on high alert all my life. I have trouble sleeping, I prefer to sit along a wall in a restaurant so no one can come up behind me, I constantly scan people, places, crowds for danger. I am forever imagining worst case scenarios and the means of escape. For decades, I was terrified of what people might say next if they paused in conversation. And on and on.

With constant fear come hypervigilance and anxiety. Hypervigilance, in turn, may be accompanied by muscle armoring, all of which (and more) will be explored in this series. Next up is the hippocampus, another crucial brain structure affected by child abuse.

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