Last week, a report by the University of San Diego School of Law found that about 686,000 children were victims of abuse and neglect in 2013. Traumatic childhood events can lead to mental health and behavioral problems later in life, explains psychiatrist and traumatic stress expert Bessel van der Kolk, author of the recently published book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Children’s brains are literally shaped by traumatic experiences, which can lead to problems with anger, addiction, and even criminal activity in adulthood, says van der Kolk.Sound Medicine’sBarbara Lewis spoke with him about his book.
Sound Medicine:Can psychologically traumatic events change the physical structure of the brain?
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk:Yes, they can change the connections and activations in the brain. They shape the brain.
The human brain is a social organ that is shaped by experience, and that is shaped in order to respond to the experience that you’re having. So particularly earlier in life, if you’re in a constant state of terror; your brain is shaped to be on alert for danger, and to try to make those terrible feelings go away.
The brain gets very confused. And that leads to problems with excessive anger, excessive shutting down, and doing things like taking drugs to make yourself feel better. These things are almost always the result of having a brain that is set to feel in danger and fear.
As you grow up an get a more stable brain, these early traumatic events can still cause changes that make you hyper-alert to danger, and hypo-alert to the pleasures of everyday life.
SM: So are you saying that a child’s brain is much more malleable than an adult brain?
BK:A child’s brain is virtually nonexistent. It’s being shaped by experience. So yes, it’s extremely malleable.