Brains are simply incredible. They are mysterious things that can surprise us anytime, day or night. Smells can invoke fond childhood memories, songs can conjure floods of emotions from past events. They also have the remarkable capacity to adapt to all sorts of situations. Nothing illustrates this better than how our brains adapt to stressful environments.
A child growing up in a home where there is a sustained level of threat, or someone who gets trapped in an abusive relationship, will often find their brain adapts to that environment. This can be; a heightened awareness of where people are in the house, being able to intuitively read the moods and emotions of other people, an over alertness to danger, or they can make themselves almost invisible as they move through a room. There are lots of examples of these adaptations and behaviours, you might have your own examples from past experience. Brains and behaviours adapt in order to survive.
Part of this adaptation is because the brain creates heightened levels of stress hormones, such as adrenalin, norepinephrine and cortisol. However, after the trauma passes these hormones stick around in the brain – the brain remains in trauma mode! This means a person may struggle in everyday situations, such as school, work or even using public transport. The name for this struggle is latent vulnerability, where earlier trauma leaves a person more at risk of stress and mental and physical health difficulties. (For a more depth look at latent vulnerability and brain development, see my youtube lecture on it HERE).
Here are 4 common ways latent vulnerability and historical trauma can make everyday stress more challenging:
1. Small window of tolerance
A person without a history of trauma may tolerate everyday stresses, like exams, job interviews, and relationship issues relatively well. They have a good size window of tolerance, meaning their tolerance for stress is high. A person with latent vulnerability will have a much smaller window of tolerance, meaning their tolerance for stress is low. A low tolerance for stress means a person can feel disproportionally anxious or depressed by everyday situations - small stresses feel really big and big stresses feel unmanageable.
A brain that has adapted to sustained trauma and threat can become hypervigilant. This is when someone’s brain is constantly in a state of increased alertness and extremely sensitive to their surroundings, sensing danger everywhere, even if the danger is not real. The brain learned to do this first to survive, and once a trauma has passed, it does it out of habit.
Trauma can affect memory. Interestingly this can differ drastically. After a trauma the traumatic memories can stand out much more prominently than everyday memories, causing everyday memories to fade. This leaves a person with only traumatic and difficult memories. Conversely, if trauma happened at a very young age then a person may not have any clear memory. Pre-verbal trauma memories are hard to access because often a child does not have the language to build a structure around the traumatic experience.
Dissociation can happen when a person feels overwhelmed. It can be experienced in different ways. This can include losing time or gaps in memory, a detachment from one’s emotions or numbness, or a sense of acting like a different person some of the time. This can be brought on by a traumatic memory or, because of latent vulnerability and a smaller window of tolerance, by everyday stresses like a deadline at work.
Does early trauma equal a stressful life?
It may feel like the odds are stacked against people who have experienced trauma. However, we are now discovering how the brain can reprogram itself over time. This is called neuroplasticity. The brain can relearn how to be in the world without always being in trauma mode. Neural pathways make new connections, it reorganises, grows and adapts to everyday life. Seeking therapy is a great way to do this. By examining how our brains have adapted to past experiences we can slowly expand our window of tolerance and manage a little easier. As well as therapy, healthy connections helps neuroplasticity too. Book clubs, dance classes, online gaming communities, sports, being in nature and creativity are all excellent ways of reducing stress and relearning how to be in the world.
I realise this is a short blog on a big topic. You may have experienced trauma, or find yourself with latent vulnerability and need more information than this short blog can provide. I would strongly encourage you to find trauma-informed support. This can be from a therapist like me, or from organisations or charities that specialise in specific experiences or mental health difficulties.
Most importantly I want you to know that brain adaptations and behaviours are normal responses to abnormal, traumatic situations. You are not alone, there is support out there and by reading this far, you are a little closer to accessing it.
First written & published for Counselling Directory Jan 2021 updated Mar 2021