This is your Brain on Stress-Overload: the impacts of early trauma on brain development

I have mentioned in some of my previous posts that Attachment Disorder is at its root a physiological condition that has emotional, behavioral and cognitive manifestations.  It is very easy to overlook the root of the disorder, especially if you are not a direct witness to the trauma that created the dysfunction in the early years of the child’s development.  It is also easy to dismiss if one does not begin with the assumption that there are no bad children – only children that have had harrowing experiences. 

What research is only recently proving, is that not only do these traumatic experiences deny the child the opportunities to learn (social, emotional and cognitive skills), the child actually incurs damage to the brain, which further impairs their ability to learn the necessary skills, even when they have been removed from the source of the trauma.

According to Bruce Perry, PhD, the effects of a child’s environment, positive or negative, interact with all of the processes of neurodevelopment.  The fundamental aspects of neurodevelopment occur in the first 3 years of life, over 8 specific processes.  Any experience that adversely affects any of these processes, alters the ability of the brain to carry out the process, thereby impairing the functional capacity of the brain.  Disruption of the pattern, timing or intensity of any of the cues required to complete the process can lead to abnormal neurodevelopment and profound dysfunction.    In short, when the child has chronic adverse experiences – loss, threat, neglect, injury, abuse – there will be disruptions of neurodevelopment that will result in compromised functioning.  The areas most often affected include fine and large motor skills, impulsivity, emotional attachment, depression, anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD, stress, memory, attention and hyper-activity.

One of the things I have learned with my kids is that the brain can repair itself.  And that it takes more than just establishing a safe, loving, stable family experience that they can trust ~ which is a feat in and of itself ~ to help them overcome the impacts of the trauma they experienced.

Children with attachment disorder (and their brains) need help to reduce the negative patterned responses that were created during the mal-development of their neuroprocesses.  They also need opportunities to stimulate their brains to create new, positive patterns of response.  I have found two techniques that have benefitted my kids; nutritional supplements and Brain Gym.  I will describe the nutritional supplements we have used successfully and how they have helped, as well as introduce the concept and some examples of Brain Gym.

First, let me say that on principle, I do not endorse medicating children and in fact had horrendous experiences with Kenneth being severely over-medicated when he came to live with me.  He was on medications for depression, compliance, attention and hyperactivity – that actually exacerbated his anger and aggression.  I was very resistant to even using natural nutritional supplements.  However, after reading and researching the root cause of the kids’ emotional and behavioral difficulties and learning about brain development, I came to the conclusion that it was not only a good idea, but imperative.  If I wanted to help the kids manage their emotional responses, part of that was to give their brains what they needed to reroute and redevelop.  I did some additional research into what supplements were most likely to provide the nutrients, chemicals and processes their brains needed and chose the following regimen for my 10-year-old:

GABA – GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an amino acid that works as an inhibitory neurotransmitter.  It balances the brain by inhibiting over-excitation.  clinical studies had identified benefits to memory, cognitive functions, nervousness, anxiety, emotional stress and sleep difficulty.

I believe it works so well in kids with Attachment Disorder because it inhibits their overly developed stress and anxiety neuroresponses.  It slows down and reduces the “traffic” firing in their “Danger Will Robinson” synapses – allowing them to create new synaptic connections with the neurons associated with rational decision-making 

Patsy takes the dosage recommended by the manufacturer.

5-HTP – 5-HTP (5-hydroxyl-L-tryptophan) is the substance the brain uses to make serotonin – a neurotransmitter that regulates emotions, sleep-awake cycles, appetite, and general feelings of well-being.  Clinical studies and a large number of anecdotal reports indicate that 5-HTP is an effective antidepressant in some people.  Research further attests that 5-HTP leads to fewer side effect than pharmaceutical antidepressants.

I believe it is helpful for kids with AD because the increased serotonin counteracts the high levels of cortisol that is present in the brains of children who have experienced chronic, prolonged stress.  Cortisol is a corticosteroid hormone produced by  the adrenal gland. It is usually referred to as the “stress hormone” as it is involved in response to stress and anxiety. It increases blood pressure and blood sugar, and reduces immune responses.  In normal release, cortisol has widespread actions which help restore homeostasis after stress.  Severe trauma or chronic stress events can elevate cortisol levels in the blood for prolonged periods and are the basis for the physiological consequences of chronic stress. 

Patsy takes the dosage recommended by the manufacturer.

SAMe – SAMe is essential for the manufacture of brain neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and serotonin.  Dopamine has many functions in the brain, including important roles in behavior and cognition, voluntary movement, motivation and reward, sleep, mood, attention, and learning.  The noradrenergic neurons (norepinephrine, epinephrine) in the brain form a neurotransmitter system, that, when activated, exerts effects on large areas of the brain. The effects are alertness and arousal, and influences on the reward system.    SAMe facilitates the binding of the neurotransmitters to their receptor sites, enhancing their activity.  SAMe also enhances membrane fluidity and improves cellular communication between neurons.  Numerous studies have shown SAMe to be equal or superior to antidepressants – with more rapid onset, and no side effects.

I believe it helps kids with AD because it facilitates the development of  the neurodevelopment processes that are broken down when the young child is experiencing chronic and/or severe trauma – specifically the development of neurotransmitters and the enhanced communications between neurons – in the areas of the brain that produce chemicals (dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and serotonin)  which support positive emotional and social responses. 

Patsy takes the dosage recommended by the manufacturer.

B-100 Multivitamin – Vitamin B-100 is a supplement that provides an entire day’s supply of all essential vitamins in the B family.  B vitamins enhance nervous system function.  The American Medical Association concurs with the majority of medical professionals worldwide in considering the B family of vitamins “stress vitamins.” These vitamins are not able to be stored by the body, so a new supply is needed daily.

I believe B vitamins are helpful for kids experiencing Attachment Disorder because they enhance the nervous system – a strategy that further assists kids to create positive coping mechanisms for managing stress.

Patsy takes the dosage recommended by the manufacturer: 1 B-100 vitamin daily.

Prior to Patsy beginning her nutritional supplement regimen, she was unable to complete homework without at least 2 or 3 meltdowns (crying, throwing things, screaming, saying she wanted to die, saying she hated everyone, screaming that no-one loves her or cares about her, running around the house, stomping up the stairs, punching walls, kicking things…).  She would get frustrated by everyday tasks and was threatening to run away from home (which she actually did once).  She would have similar problems at school.  She would also do what we call “fire drills”, claiming to be unable to perform simple tasks like choose a shirt, tie her shoes, make her bed, and then have huge temper tantrums that no-one would help her.  She was mad almost all of the time.

Since starting to take the supplements, she is doing her homework with minimal assistance, enjoys her assigned reading time, and has been on honor roll all year.  She does her chores and often offers to help me with cooking or folding clothes.  She gets along better with her brother and sister, is openly affectionate and laughs regularly.  She is sleeping through the night and waking up rested and in happy spirits.
They have made a HUGE difference for her.  On weekends, if she forgets to take them, I can see a change in her behavior and moods within hours.  I then remind her to take them and within an hour she is calm and back to her happy self.
In addition to using the nutritional supplements to help her brain redevelop, we also have Patsy perform various types of Brain Gym (These simple exercises are based on the copyrighted work of Paul E. Dennison, Ph.D., and Gail E. Dennison. Brain Gym is a registered trademark of Brain Gym® International).  Several of the Brain Gym exercises are intended to help with coordinating right and left brain communication, concentration, and achieving calm.  There are 26 exercises included in the Brain Gym model, though I will only describe a few that specifically address the areas most beneficial to kids with Attachment Disorder.
  • “Cross Crawl”
    This exercise helps coordinate right and left brain by exercising the information flow between the two hemispheres.
  • Stand or sit. Put the right hand across the body to the left knee as you raise it, and then do the same thing for the left hand on the right knee just as if you were marching.  This can be performed using one hand at a time or with both hands.  The key is to achieve “cross mid-line” in which the arms cross over the vertical center of the body. 
  • Just do this either sitting or standing for about 2 minutes.
    • “Hook Ups”
      This works well for nerves before a test or special event such as making a speech. Any situation which will cause nervousness calls for a few “hook ups” to calm the mind and improve concentration.
    • Stand or sit. Cross the right leg over the left at the ankles.
    • Take your right wrist and cross it over the left wrist and link up the fingers so that the right wrist is on top.
    • Bend the elbows out and gently turn the fingers in towards the body until they rest on the sternum (breast bone) in the center of the chest. Stay in this position.
    • Keep the ankles crossed and the wrists crossed and then breathe evenly in this position for a few minutes. You will be noticeably calmer after that time.

    • Lazy eight’s
      The activity consists in drawing horizontal eight’s in the air with one hand at a time. It activates brain and improves connection between hemispheres.

    • The elephant
      The activity consists in drawing horizontal eight’s in the air with both hands at the same time. It activates the inner ear for improved balance and so integrates the brain for listening with both ears. It improves listening comprehension and attention, short- and long-term memory, and thinking ability.

    We have found it particularly helpful to do these exercises with Patsy to help her transition back home at the end of a school day.  It is a fun and funny activity to do before she sits down to do her homework. 

    DISCLAIMER: I am not a physician or medical professional.  I cannot, and would not, prescribe any type of medication, nutritional supplement, or therapy for anyone.  The information provided in this blog is for informational purposes only, and based on my experiences with my children.

    Copyrighted 1/25/10

    One Response

    1. This is a great post, it has changed the way I am thinking now

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