Early Childhood Trauma Affects Our Brains

Science has a habit of explaining what common sense has already revealed.  One might wonder why we do the science if common sense can tell us so much for a much lower cost.  Well, understanding how things are biologically connected does help us to work towards therapies and healing at times.  Science provides some tentative ground on which to develop an approach of restoration, at times.

A recent study by the University of San Diego School of Law reported that 686,000 children were abused in some manner in 2013.  While this provokes a deep mourning in all of us, it also sparked a topic of discussion on Sound Medicine News concerning the effects that such traumatic experiences have on children’s brains (note: this link is good science, but bad theology, read further on this blog before clicking the link). Here is where we might think, okay, no surprise, especially for anyone who went through trauma as a child.  Even if not abuse, the loss of a loved one or a car accident or a severe illness as a child changes our view of the world for the rest of our lives.  We are never the same even if we “deal” with it or are able to “cope”.  How do we cope or help others cope with these past experiences?  Can science help us understand this more clearly?  Does understanding it scientifically mean that we don’t need the Bible?

Bessel van der Kolk, author of the recently published book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, in an interview with Sound Medicine News, discusses the science being uncovered in this field.  I will summarize his science and try to avoid the same error where he makes a wrong turn.  van der Kolk explains in layman’s terms how some areas of the brain are left underdeveloped in response to anxiety, fear, or pain in early childhood.  The child’s brain is very malleable to experience, meaning that what happens to the person can cause changes in the very physical structure of the brain that lasts for life.  Some areas do not grow as much.  Other areas become hyper sensitive.  Still others build connections that are more dysfunctional than functional.  Later in life, these changes cause adults to respond to situations more instinctively and seemingly illogically at times.  One person’s fear of driving makes no sense until you consider their childhood car wreck.  Another person’s fear of thunder seems silly until you learn of some remote event in their childhood.

No wrong turns just yet, but then he begins to look at how we help those in these situations.  One study showed that yoga was effective in PTSD.  A false sense of security is offered in teaching yoga practitioners how to be comfortable with how their body feels.  There is no mention of God, no mention of forgiveness, no mention of sin, no mention of true healing, just feeling better through yoga which is contrary to a Biblical view of man and creation.  Before offering a Biblical answer, I will also warn the reader to beware of the comments section which strays further from Biblical truth in some of its pseudo-scientific cures.

A Biblical answer does not ignore science.  Science gives us a physical explanation and no more, but guides us in seeing a person’s struggles with past trauma as needing more than a cliché “just get over it”.  An adult who lived through childhood trauma has physical changes in their brains which require time and the addressing of the spirit in order to heal.  Besides that, even with restoration and healing, scars may remain where wounds once existed.  A Biblical response applies the truths of the Bible, which are spiritual truths, to a spiritual problem.  This spiritual problem does manifest in physical changes in the brain, but the root cause is spiritual.  Evil in the world hurts and wounds.  If someone suffers today from what happened 4o, 50 , 60 years ago, spiritual healing must occur.  Science cannot offer this type of healing.

So, if yoga is a wrong turn, what is the right turn?  First, spiritual healing requires regeneration.  The unbeliever cannot hope for the same restoration that a believer in Christ can.  Second, Biblical counseling formally or informally is needed.  The more intense the trauma and the more intense the continued effects, the more intense need for strong Biblical counseling.  Third, time is needed.  What has hurt for decades will not likely heal in a day or a week.  Underneath all this the Holy Spirit must be working.  Where does science fit in?  Wise Christian physicians must learn to use medicines and science based therapies as tools, but not as panaceas.  These scientific tools must be used with the goal of leading the person to the One who does heal.  Anything else is just as deceiving as sending them to yoga class.

As I have written many times before, we are “whole” beings made in God’s image.  Only an approach that presupposes this can hope to heal childhood trauma.

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