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Dec 06 2011

Another turn of the screw

The brains of children raised in violent families resemble the brains of soldiers exposed to combat, according to an article in Wired.

They’re primed to perceive threat and anticipate pain, adaptations that may be helpful in abusive environments but produce long-term problems with stress and anxiety.

“For them to detect early cues that might signal danger is adaptive. It allows them to react, to try and avoid the danger,” said psychologist Eamon McCrory of University College London. However, “a very similar neural signature characterizes quite a few anxiety disorders.”

Absolutely nothing surprising there. Bad things keep happening, so you develop a strong tendency to react quickly…and you’re stuck with it. A lifetime of feeling extra, exaggerated fear and dread. What a gift.

It’s not at all surprising but it’s deeply sad.

20 comments

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  1. 1
    carolw

    “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” huh? I knew abused children were more likely to grow into abusers themselves, but this is really shocking and sad information.

  2. 2
    Peter M

    As the child of a violent alcoholic mother, I can vouch for the veracity of those findings. Way back before abuse was even considered an issue, I made a conscious decision not to have kids myself as I knew that at best I would have not the faintest clue how to bring them up properly and at worst I might actually abuse them. I suffer from all the afflictions mentioned in the article (though I have managed mostly to control my aggression) and have been in therapy without any significant improvement for over twenty years. I am constantly plagued by depression, flashbacks and a deeply-ingrained irrational terror of even the most innocuous situations.

    Ironically, one of the greatest challenges is getting the medical profession to recognise the problem – partly because as a middle-aged male, I’m considered (by both society and the medical profession) to be without needs or vulnerabilities, and partly because the formal definition of PTSD does not include multiple or sustained trauma. Apparently, if your mother kicks the shit out of you once, you have PTSD. If your mother kicks the shit out of you every day for fourteen years, you don’t have PTSD because there isn’t a single, defined traumatic event to link it to.

    A lifetime of feeling extra, exaggerated fear and dread. What a gift.

    Indeed. I am constantly reminded of how my life might have been if only I wasn’t scared shitless of everything and everyone.

  3. 3
    Alethea Kuiper-Belt

    Oh man, that is terrible. Have an internet hug from a total stranger. Guaranteed non-scary, because, well, internet! Is there a formal diagnosis that a therapist can use instead of PTSD?

    I do wonder about the correctness of your claim about PTSD diagnosis. Because I have a friend who was sexually abused as a child over many years, and she has PTSD. Perhaps the diagnostic criteria are different in Australia? Perhaps you saw an incompetent doctor?

  4. 4
    mouthyb, Vagina McTits

    A lifetime of checking door locks, of people saying ‘why are you so tense/worry so often’ (like I want to), a lifetime of on-and-off vivid nightmare in which I die or others die horribly, a lifetime of fighting anger and depression, or of dealing with outbreaks of my eating disorder, random feelings of panic, my brain falling into patterns like ‘is that person looking at me funny?’ ‘is that guy following me?’ ‘do these people hate me?’

    Abuse: it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

    The US, for the most part, does not accept the category CPTSD, but Australia does. The research papers I’ve read indicate modest success with rehabilitating soldiers and seriously abused children over there. The normal treatments for PTSD don’t typically work with people who have long term exposure. Extinction therapy (reliving the trauma, theraputically) actually makes it worse for people with sustained trauma.

    Here’s some links to abstracts of those papers, for those interested:

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/q5l8k438342163l1/

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jts.2490100403/abstract

    http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=hObESa9b1i4C&oi=fnd&pg=PR9&dq=complex+ptsd&ots=af5d-ylhhY&sig=dGisLY2YwaQb0KvdcKRtWZHNatA#v=onepage&q=complex%20ptsd&f=false

  5. 5
    Peter M

    Hi Alethea

    Thanks for the hug! :-)

    The NHS criteria (and, AFAIK, those in the DSM) are that PTSD is associated with a single, defined trauma, though a veil is drawn over how battle qualifies as a single trauma and childhood abuse doesn’t.

    There is an additional diagnosis of C-PTSD – Complex PTSD (see wikipedia for a summary) – but it tends not to be recognised in the UK. I’ve just reached the top of a three-year waiting list for NHS therapy – private therapy is prohibitively expensive over here – so we’ll see how it goes.

    For the reasons outlined in the article Ophelia quotes, though, I’m not terribly optimistic. It seems to me (having obviously given the matter much thought) that the most important factor in a child’s development is secure attachment to a stable source of care – or at the very least, an initial welcome into the world. Take those away, and the various resulting fucked-upnesses are hellishly difficult, if not impossible, to treat.

    Like most other abuse survivors, I’m just getting through life as best I can. Mostly, I manage OK, but it’s kind of looking through a window and seeing everyone else enjoying a Christmas you can’t have.

    Speaking of which, have a good Solstice. :-) You too, Ophelia, and thanks for the link to the article!

  6. 6
    Svlad Cjelli

    “… you don’t have PTSD because there isn’t a single, defined traumatic event to link it to. ”

    Really? Why?

  7. 7
    BenSix

    For them to detect early cues that might signal danger is adaptive. It allows them to react, to try and avoid the danger…

    The expectation of trouble – and the neuroses that accompany it – will doubtless perpetuate the violence they’re trying to avoid. And ensure they can’t acknowledge and, thus, enjoy peace. God, the world can be depressing.

    My sympathies – for what they’re worth – to Peter.

  8. 8
    Aquaria

    to be without needs or vulnerabilities, and partly because the formal definition of PTSD does not include multiple or sustained trauma.

    That’s not true.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001923/

    http://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/pages/dsm-iv-tr-ptsd.asp

    Domestic abuse falls under the criteria for diagnosing PTSD.

    If your therapist told you otherwise, s/he is a fraud.

  9. 9
    Peter M

    Svlad, Aquaria:

    I was told I couldn’t possibly have PTSD (for the reasons given above) by a consultant psychiatrist. Mind you, it could have had something to do with the fact that PTSD rarely yields to CBT and CBT is the NHS’s favoured therapy du jour, not least because it’s cheap. Admitting that I had PTSD would have committed the local health service to a protracted course of treatment; lesser ailments are more amenable to thinking happy thoughts, and therefore more likely to be diagnosed.

  10. 10
    Ophelia Benson

    God, Peter…Have another stranger-hug.

    I wonder…I wonder if a companion animal is any help with this kind of thing. They are apparently very therapeutic in some situations. I would think this might be one such situation – a loyal secure attachment object.

  11. 11
    Peter M

    Thanks, Ophelia. Indeed, companion animals are very helpful – non-judgemental and always (dogs) / usually (cats) up for a sympathetic cuddle. From the age of ten I had a yellow Labrador who always came over for a snuggle post-ructions with that cringey, shruggy, isn’t-life-a-bitch demeanour that Labs do so well. Kept me sane til I was old enough to leave home. Nowadays, my partner’s two Burmese cats are a source of constant joy and comfort – Burmese in particular are very people-oriented and almost dog-like in their attachment and loyalty patterns. I highly recommend them!

  12. 12
    Ophelia Benson

    Peter – ahh good; I’m relieved.

    And don’t I know it about Labs.

  13. 13
    Almulhida

    I can vouch for the extreme fear of everything too. And the knee jerk response of trying to avoid every conflict. And the extreme inability to handle any kind of social disapproval. And being put into fight or flight mode at the merest hint of anger in anyone around you. The inability to ever really feel secure in your romantic relationships or partner’s affection. I could go on, but it’s the fear that’s really the worst. It stops you from accomplishing anything. It paralyzes you so that even when you know what the problem is and how to fix it, you just never get around to doing it.

  14. 14
    Stephanie Zvan

    And here I thought my having been afraid of everything went along with my being shy since birth. Go figure.

  15. 15
    Ophelia Benson

    Thanks for the links, mouthyb. And thanks you and Almuhida for the confirmation. God how sad.

  16. 16
    Bruce Gorton

    I can vouch for this one. It was a sibling in my case.

    It is why I tend to get flashes of rage every now and then, and why my written voice tends towards a snarl. Moving away from the guilt imposed by social standards over my inability to forgive my brother helped reduce the fear.

    Once you recognise that your hate is justified, it becomes easier to deal with the fear at the root of it. Or at least that is what I found.

    I am still highly ill at ease with other people face to face, though I push myself not to be at work. It takes me a long time to really get to a point where I can really feel comfortable though, so I cover with jokes.

  17. 17
    Everett Attebury

    What Almulhida and Peter M said.

    It seems like it’s getting worse the older I get. Everything else that has happened in my life can’t seem to make up for the things that happened to me when I was 3-4 years old. Not many people are capable of understanding this, either. It really means a lot to me when I come across someone who does.

  18. 18
    judykomorita

    Almulhida, you just described my life.

    The inability to fix one’s self is a major guilt and depression producer, too.

    My problem is I have no memories of childhood abuse, just extreme sensitivity. And years of blank spaces. In fact, most of my childhood is a blank.

    I will go to my grave wondering what, if anything, is hidden in all those gaps. I suppose you could say I’m better off than those who remember, but if I can’t remember anything, I can’t deal with it.

    And don’t forget the poor self-image, and attendant sexual problems that come with all this. I have some of the symptoms of past sexual abuse, but have no memories of any. Just emotional abuse from 2 decades with my (now-ex-husband).

    I also sympathize with the comment about looking through the window and seeing everyone else enjoy Christmas. I feel that way about good relationships, lack of fear, and joy of sex. I don’t have any of that.

  19. 19
    Ophelia Benson

    That’s a powerful post, Almuhida. I’m glad you find yourself doing better.

  20. 20
    siamese cats

    In the original Lady and the Tramp the cats had red bodies. A friend of my father also had one of these cats, but I cannot seem to find anything about them. Every search for Siamese cats shows the white ones. I love the red ones and would like to have one someday, but I have no idea how to find where to get one.
    Some people seem to be missing the part where I said someone my father knew actually owned one. These cats do exist I have held the one his friends had.

    By red body I mean the cats body was red while the ears, legs, and tail were brown.

  1. 21
    Child Abuse « almulhida

    [...] Benson wrote a blog entry about an article from Wired about how abuse changes a child’s brain, basically noting that [...]

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