Typical childhood fears disappear as they get older, however fear-inducing traumatic events such as physical or sexual abuse or exposure to family violence contribute to lifelong impacts on wellbeing. Abuse causes chronic stress on the brain. Fear-triggering, threatening events that are frequent and repetitive contribute to physiological responses that affect learning, behavior as well as physical and mental health.
At the age of 6 to12 months babies develop the ability to form memories and thus begin to experience their first feelings of fear. The creation of memories, marks an important developmental stage in their lives. With the aid of memories they begin to shape their views of the world. Their brain learns and adapts through the experiences they have of their surroundings.
In this sensitive yet pivotal phase of brain development, if the child is exposed to constant state of terror from abuse and violence, the optimal growth and functioning of the brain gets seriously hampered. Repeated trauma develops a persistent state of fear. The chronic stress can activate the body’s fear responses and form permanent memories which form the basis of child's response to their environment.
In the first 3 years of a child's life when the brain is in its most crucial growth phase of regulating emotions, language, and abstract thought - traumatic incidences can negatively affect the brain structures and its connections.
Imagine the state of such a child who has been abused, because of which the brain has lost the opportunity to develop normally. Instead the brain is now focused on protecting itself from danger and fear. It has adopted a highly alert mode and is constantly strengthening the neuronal pathways to respond to any threats, thus constantly keeping the child with feelings of terror, fear and helplessness.
Impact of chronic fear
Effect on the key ‘fear-center’ in the brain
Two important structures in the brain - the amygdala and the hippocampus, have important roles to play on how the body responds to threat. Amygdala handles the brains’ response to stress, while hippocampus helps process emotions and memories. Alterations in the amygdala can become the cause of future anxiety disorders.
Chemicals crucial for the developing brain also take a toll. The toxic stress hormones affects the growth of both these structures. The specific stress hormone - Cortisol, rise in relation to the level of trauma the child undergoes and become a cause of depression and aggression later in life.
It is amygdala that sends signals of danger to the child's mind even when no harm exists. Children lose their ability to differentiate between threatening and non-threatening situation. Their brain gets programmed to danger even in a safe environment. The memories formed from such fear responses create a state of hyperarousal. Persistent fear results in an overactive stress response. The victims become hypersensitive to normal stimuli, even a touch on the arm, a smile, some sound, smell or taste could trigger highly exaggerated and dramatic responses.
Effect of maltreatment on brain structure and activity
Stress causes the vital structures of the brain to be reduced in volume - i.e, hippocampus, corpus callosum, cerebellum, prefrontal cortex. While hippocampus is central to learning, corpus callosum is involved in higher cognitive abilities and emotions. Cerebellum helps coordinate motor behaviour and executive functioning. Prefrontal cortex is critical to behavior, cognition, emotion and social regulation. The cortex is responsible for the majority of our rational decision-making, planning, and analytical abilities.
All these structures work together to help children learn new things. But chronic activation of the body's stress response system damages their ability to learn and adversely affects brain architecture in these critical areas.
Complicated social interactions and learning disability
All in all, children have difficulty interacting and relating to other people and have troubled social interactions. Many a times these children get labeled as ‘learning disabled’. The result of all the structural and neurochemical developmental damage can affect executive functioning resulting in lower academic achievement, intellectual impairment, decreased IQ, and weakened ability to maintain attention.
Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to aggression between parents may powerfully shape children’s emotional adjustment - that is regulating their own feelings of sadness, withdrawal, and fear, placing them at greater risk for symptoms of anxiety and depression later on. Researchers have also found that children who were regularly spanked had less gray matter. Less gray matter has been linked to depression, addiction and other mental health disorders.
As Nelson Mandela once said, “We owe our children – the most vulnerable citizens in any society – a life free from violence and fear.”
Children need to feel secure, safe, and loved so as to blossom to their full potential. But when they are beaten, abused, threatened - it is fear that acts like a safe haven to potential dangers, keeping them always on guard and creating a sense of safety. Let us pledge to save every innocent child from fear, giving them a life free from any threat,
abuse or violence.