When someone experiences trauma, its physical and emotional effects can sometimes impact their children – and the impact of trauma on child development can begin in utero.
You see, during times of stress, the body releases the hormone cortisol. As you may know, that’s one of the ways our body helps us cope with physically or emotionally difficult situations.
But when trauma elevates cortisol to unhealthy levels, it can have an epigenetic impact – not only on the client, but on their children as well.
So how can this happen?
We created an infographic you can use with clients to help them visualize how trauma can get passed on through caregivers.
Click the image to enlarge
The Role of Cortisol in the Cycle of Trauma
What is Cortisol?
As you’ve likely seen in your work, when a person struggles to regulate the emotional impact of stressors, it not only affects the mind, but impacts the body as well.
During these moments of stress, one of the primary hormones released into the body is cortisol. You may already be very familiar with cortisol and its many impacts on the body. But just to provide a brief refresher. . .
Cortisol is often called the “stress hormone” and is nature’s built-in alarm system.
Cortisol is helpful when it regulates metabolism, reduces inflammation, manages blood sugar levels, and aides in memory formulation. Cortisol is a vital hormone for living a healthy and sustainable life.
When a person is under distress, cortisol is released into the body resulting in:
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased blood glucose
- Increased respiration and muscle tension
- The shutdown of systems not needed during a survival response such as the digestive system and reproductive system
During a crisis, all of these can aide in your survival.
But when a client is experiencing stress caused by everyday triggers, their cortisol levels can become dangerous to their health and well-being.
When someone has experienced trauma, it is often more difficult for clients to regulate emotions and the range of emotions they can manage can become quite narrow.
In these cases, the “window of tolerance” is a useful tool to help explain to clients what’s going on when they’re feeling dysregulated.
How Cortisol Impacts Early Development
During pregnancy, cortisol also supports the developing fetus. When the mother’s body releases cortisol, the fetus absorbs the hormone through the placenta.
Cortisol has an impact on the baby’s:
- HPA axis – (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis)
- Central nervous system
- Autonomic nervous system
Cortisol also plays an important role in the fetus’s brain and lung development.
During this phase of development, the fetal organs and organ systems are subjected to both positive and negative influences from the mother’s body. This is a crucial time for the fetus and elevated stress levels from the mother can pose a dangerous risk to the physical and cognitive health of the baby. If a mother experiences high levels of stress – the fetus will also receive the increased levels of cortisol.
High levels of maternal stress during pregnancy can lead to delayed development in both cognitive and motor functioning for the child.
Of course, when a woman is pregnant, they are already more vulnerable to psychological distress such as anxiety, depression, and stress. So how can we help mothers manage their stress levels during pregnancy? Here are some resources that can help:
When a caregiver struggles to regulate their stress levels, it can also strain the attachment relationship they have with their child. As you know, early attachment traumas can have lasting impacts on a person’s life.
When a child develops insecure attachment styles, it can lead to difficulty regulating emotions and building trusting bonds.
For strategies on how to work with attachment and how it profoundly impacts the treatment of trauma here are some resources that can help:
Helping clients heal from attachment-based trauma can be one of the most challenging things we do – but when we can understand how insecure attachment develops, we can be primed to help clients heal more quickly.
How a Caregiver with Untreated Trauma Can Impact the Child – Even into Adulthood
So how can a caregiver with untreated trauma impact the lives of their children – even into adulthood?
When a fetus absorbs heightened cortisol levels from a mother who experiences trauma or relives traumatic memories, it can have lasting effects. This can result in the child experiencing adverse effects throughout their lives, such as:
- Being more prone to PTSD after trauma
- Struggling to repair after conflict
- Struggling with relationships
Epigenetics has been shown to influence a person’s susceptibility to PTSD. You might find this article interesting: How Might Epigenetics Influence the Link between PTSD and Inflammation?
In addition, when left untreated, childhood trauma can make it difficult for clients to get close to other people throughout their lives. Terry Real, MSW, LICSW has an interesting way of thinking about this specific aftereffect of trauma that can be helpful for clients to better understand their struggle. We created an infographic to break this model down into 3-parts: How Trauma Can Affect Adult Relationships. We think you’ll find it useful.
When a child grows up in a home with an insecure attachment relationship with their caregiver, it can lead to that person:
- Unintentionally bringing out negative behaviors in others
- Being emotionally detached
- Being more prone to dissociation
When a client has experienced trauma, even perceived threats can put them into a state of shutdown or dissociation. This can often be triggered by feeling threatened, recounting traumatic memories, or feeling emotions associated with past trauma.
And left untreated, this can impact a client’s sleep and eating habits, result in them feeling socially withdrawn, and make it difficult for them to express themselves.
Here are some resources that can help you with your clients struggling with dissociation:
While these impacts can be significant and long-lasting, attachment styles aren’t set in stone. People can learn secure attachment at any point in life — and that’s where therapy comes in.
Breaking the Cycle of Trauma
When trauma from a caregiver impacts a child, it can create a cycle that extends for generations. So how can we as practitioners help to break this loop?
We can start by recognizing when a client has experienced trauma and utilizing trauma-informed care in our work. With a trauma-informed approach, we can better understand how trauma has shaped a client’s life, determine the best path for healing, and avoid potentially retraumatizing.
There are six principles of trauma-informed care that allow clinicians to effectively recognize and respond to the signs and symptoms of trauma. They include:
- Trust and Transparency
- Peer Support
- Empowerment & Choice
- Cultural, Historical, and Gender Awareness
Compassion-focused therapy strategies can also be critical in healing the shame, depression, and anxiety that is often felt after experiencing attachment-based trauma. Understanding how compassion affects the brain and body can be game-changing to help even the most stuck clients begin to heal.
Integrating compassion therapies can help clients break free from shame cycles, self-criticism, and improve their capacity to whether distress. And it can often be effective to help clients overcome the resistance and blocks to working with their trauma.
Here are compassion-based strategies that clinicians can use to help clients struggling with the effects of trauma:
When we can help someone heal from trauma, we impact more than just that one person. The effects can ripple to their children, family, communities, and more. That’s why the work we do as health and mental health practitioners is so important.
We hope that you found the information in this article useful to your work with clients.
For more strategies that you can use to help clients who’ve experienced trauma, be sure to check out The Neurobiology of Attachment.
You’ll get insights from Bessel van der Kolk, MD; Dan Siegel, MD; Pat Ogden, PhD; Allan Schore, PhD; and Ruth Lanius, MD, PhD.
Now we’d like to hear from you. How have you worked with clients who have experienced trauma? And how do you plan on using these strategies in your work? Please leave a comment below.