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Surviving Childhood: An Introduction to the Impact of Trauma


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Lesson 2: The Psychology and Physiology of Trauma
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The Psychology and Physiology of Trauma

Figure 2-5: Individualized adaptive response.
  1. Same Event, Different Adaptive Styles in Different Children: On a quiet Sunday morning outside of Waco Texas, the ATF raided the Branch Davidian compound. Most of us have seen the footage of this assault on the television. Thousands of bullets were fired into that building. More than 80 children were in that building on that morning.

    In the three days following the ATF assault, 21 children were released to the FBI and became temporary wards of the State of Texas, cared for by a clinical team directed by the ChildTrauma Academy. These 21 children had a variety of individualized adaptive responses to the same event; some using a primary hyperarousal response, others a primary dissociative response -- but the majority used a combination of these two primary adaptive patterns.

    Hyperarousal: T. was an 11-year-old boy. He described a sense of heightened awareness, no primary anxiety, racing heart, and increased vigilance; he was very, very focused on the location and behavior of the ATF agents. Only after the event did he say he felt afraid. He was primarily afraid that the shooting would start again.

    Dissociative: G. was an 8-year-old girl. She reported crawling under her bed and "kind of falling asleep." She could not give significant details regarding the shooting. She reported that it didn't seem real, that "it all was like a dream."

    KEY POINT: Individual adaptive responses will vary. Many factors appear to play a role in the individual response. Several important variables are age, sex, and previous history of traumatic exposure. Young children and females are more likely to use dissociative adaptations.

  2. Same Child, Different Event, and Different Adaptive Style: X. is a 10-year-old boy. Over the course of a single year, he was exposed to two different kinds of traumatic events. The first was a shooting in the community. He was with a group of children playing in a neighborhood when an altercation broke out between two older boys. The younger children watched as these boys fought and then one went to his car to get a gun.

    X. describes the increase in his heart rate and his sense of fear, vigilance, and conflict about whether he should run home. When the older boy returned with the gun, X turned and ran. He heard the gunshot and looked back to see one boy on the ground. He later returned to the site of the shooting to see the blood on the ground. This was a classic hyperarousal response that resulted in his flight.

    Two months later, X. was visiting family in another part of Texas. A severe storm and then a tornado threatened their home. He reports that he felt terrified and then immobilized. He was unable to move; his uncle took him into a closet under the stairs. In contrast to the shooting, he has little recollection of the details of the storm except that it was dark, noisy, and it seemed to last for a long time.

    After the event he remembers walking around the neighborhood looking at the damage, then says, "Or maybe I dreamed that." This was an inescapable event. And his response was primarily dissociative in nature.

    KEY POINT: The nature of an event can determine which response pattern is most adaptive. In this case, fleeing was protective in the shooting, but would have been foolish in the storm. In general, when direct physical assault (e.g., torture or the sexual assault of a child) or inescapable threat is present, dissociation will be adaptive. In events where the individual is capable of fighting (e.g., the assault is by someone smaller than you) or fleeing (i.e., you can actually run away from the threat), the hyperarousal response is most adaptive.

  3. Same Child, Different Event, Developmental Differences in Adaptive Style: T. is a 12-year-old girl. From birth until age 5 she lived in a household characterized by domestic violence. During this time, she was noted to be quiet, compliant, "tuned out," a daydreamer, and generally "a good little girl." She reports little memory of the fighting, but her mother describes finding her in her bed, rocking, with covers over her head after some of the fights in the home.

    At age 12, her mother remarried but, unfortunately, episodes of domestic violence resumed in this household. This time, however, T. was loud, combative, and angry; she would run away from the home each time these events took place. At school she was noted to have "attention problems," which turned out to be hypervigilance.

    Rather than "tuning out" and withdrawing into a dissociative shell, this child was sensitized to fighting and had dramatic and pronounced hyperarousal during conflict.

    KEY POINT: Traumatic events of the same nature can induce different adaptive responses in the same child at different times during the child's development. An infant and young child is not truly capable of fighting or fleeing, so hyperarousal is not an adaptive response. However, by age 12, fighting back and fleeing were adaptive. In this child, both adaptive styles were used at different times in life for the same kind of perceived threat.



 


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