You don’t have to experience direct, deliberate abuse to experience trauma. There are lawyers who experience vicarious trauma working on difficult cases and healthcare workers who burn out after being overloaded with cases. Recent events in the news, such as the COVID-19 outbreak and former President Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, can also traumatize people even if they are not the direct target of abuse.
At least scientists and doctors have learned that the roots of trauma are extremely complicated.
Now, a new study in the journal Depression & Anxiety has shed light on an unexpected potential origin of trauma – unpredictable childhoods.
Using an updated version of a questionnaire that assesses whether adults had unpredictable childhoods, researchers analyzed 156 people who had been exposed to trauma to determine if there was a correlation between their mental health symptoms and their childhood experiences. The results were striking: people who had experienced an unpredictable childhood had a statistically higher risk of anxiety, anhedonia, higher depression and even suicidal ideation. This was true regardless of the traumas they suffered as adults – or even if they were traumatized as children.
“Often, unpredictable, unreliable, and inconsistent parenting is linked to the parent’s difficulty regulating their emotions, tolerating distress, and coping with their child.”
“Unpredictability in the context of the Questionnaire of Unpredictability in Childhood (QUIC) instrument focuses on non-traumatic events, but rather on the predictability of caregiving and the care environment for the individual,” explained Victoria Risbrough, lead researcher of the study. . She said the questionnaire focused on seemingly mundane issues such as after-school routines; bedtime routines; the number of times a family has left home; and other environmental factors that lead to unpredictability, even if not considered inherently traumatic.
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These types of questions were designed to “capture a different element of environmental effects on childhood rather than outright trauma or deprivation, to understand how development might be affected by the consistency of parental actions and the environment of care,” Risbrough wrote to Salon. “We know from fundamental work in sensory systems that the development of brain circuits depends on the coherence of sensory signals, and we believe that a similar concept may be at play for the coherence of environmental and caregiver signals, especially for brain circuits associated with reward and emotion.”
Risbrough also pointed out that correlation does not automatically demonstrate causation; therefore, the study does not prove that unpredictable childhoods leave people more prone to trauma, but merely provides evidence to suggest that this may be the case.
“As part of an NIMH-funded Conte Center led by Dr. Tallie Z. Baram, we are conducting multipronged studies to identify and explore the potential causal mechanism for the effect of unpredictable care on the brain and brain. risk of mental health disorders,” Risbrough said. Salon, adding that the studies include animals as well as humans and that their field is focused on “trying to identify the mechanisms of how unpredictability affects development.”
Gail Saltz MD – clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital and host of “How Can I Help?” iHeartRadio podcast – told Salon via email that because the study focuses primarily on veterans, its findings cannot necessarily be applied to the general population. Additionally, because the researchers performed a retrospective study (i.e., asking patients to recall past experiences) instead of a prospective study (i.e., assessing the current state of patients and then tracking their health over time), Saltz argued that “this greatly reduces the value of these findings.”
At the same time, Saltz did not reject the idea that childhood unpredictability is linked to adult trauma.
“It is intended to capture a different element of environmental effects on childhood rather than trauma or outright deprivation, to understand how development might be affected by the consistency of parental actions and the caregiving environment.”
“There has been further research on early trauma and early difficulties that may underlie psychopathology later in life, and findings that the early unpredictability of life which is a known stressor ( even if it is not trauma) can increase adult psychopathology scores is unsurprising and consistent with other research findings,” Saltz explained. control over their environment, this creates high levels of stress that shape their brain development.
“Maintaining high levels of stress impacts the developing brain via neurochemicals and changes in neurocircuitry,” Saltz told Salon. “In that sense, the result of this study is credible.”
Dr. Jessica January Behr, a licensed psychologist who practices in New York City, told Salon via email that the study’s findings are credible based on her own experiences with patients.
“These study findings are directly in line with what psychologists know in the field of attachment research,” Behr explained. “A disorganized attachment style has been linked to increased symptoms and psychiatric diagnoses later in life. In particular, we see disorganized attachment linked to psychopathy disorders. The results of disorganized attachment form parenting unpredictable where the child is unable to predict or trust the behavior of their parents.This leads to difficulties later in life with trust, closeness, separation and bonding.As we know, the social development is strongly implicated in many psychiatric disorders.
Olivia James, a London-based therapist who specializes in trauma and treats high-level professionals dealing with anxiety, observed to Salon via email that “clients with unstable and unpredictable childhoods can experience effects on self-esteem, confidence and anxiety levels. This can impact life and career choices.” Accordingly, she finds the conclusions of the study credible.
“The unpredictability is particularly difficult because it’s hard to settle into a coping strategy,” explained James. “The only option is hypervigilance, distrust and a feeling of permanent instability.”
Perhaps one of the most important lessons from the study is that parents can unintentionally traumatize their children. In order to create a mentally healthy environment for a child, parents must remember that their good intentions are not the only thing that matters. Even parents who act with the best of intentions can still traumatize their children. As Behr pointed out, most parents do not intentionally inflict distress on their children.
“Often, unpredictable, unreliable, and inconsistent parenting is related to the parent’s difficulty regulating their emotions, tolerating distress, and coping with their child,” Behr explained. “My best advice to parents is to be reflective, to be honest, and to work on their ability to regulate their emotions, tolerate stress, and be mindful of their child and their experience.” Children absorb their parents’ emotions and distress, even when they are so young they cannot verbalize them.
Yet there are ways to avoid this: Parents who struggle with their emotions can seek out certain types of therapy. Behr cited DBT, or dialectical behavior therapy, as an example, which for some parents helps them better regulate their emotional responses. “General mindfulness can also be helpful,” Behr added. “Mindfulness practices can also help increase attunement with yourself and with others in your environment, including your children.”
Risbrough pointed out that having consistent and safe home routines in place can offset the risk of trauma from unpredictability.
“Unpredictability is one of many potential factors that affect development,” Risbrough told Salon. She noted that trauma and deprivation are both very unhealthy for children, and there is evidence that healthy brain development depends on a level of consistency in its environment. When this consistency is lacking, children are more likely to grow into adults with issues like depression and anhedonia. “Establishing household routines and consistency of care can help build resilience,” Risbrough added.
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