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The Trauma Experience: What is Childhood Trauma, and Why Does it Matter?

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

Psychologist DR. ESSLIN TERRIGHENA hones in on childhood trauma and the effects it can have on our mental health in adulthood.

Events in childhood that threaten our physical or emotional safety are likely to outweigh our coping resources and overwhelm us, leaving us traumatized. These threats and dangers activate our sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for biochemical processes that stimulate our fight-flight-freeze response. In other words, our bodies get prepared to give us the best chance at survival. This response is linked to feelings, thoughts, physiology, and behaviours.

At the time of the trauma, all our resources are re-directed to survival and communication between our emotion centres and higher cortical areas of the brain is interrupted. Consequently, we are primarily driven by feelings (our alarm system!) and physiology (our response system). This also means that the traumatic incident may not be contextualized as occurring as a certain time, in a certain space. Instead, its memory and all its associated responses can be subsequently triggered and make us feel like we are experiencing the same thoughts, feelings, physiology, reactions, and even sometimes situation, again, even many years later.

Childhood trauma is particularly significant as children have developing brains that are still trying to grasp how the world works. Children are born into the world with an instinct to attach to their primary caregivers and a sense that they will be kept safe, nurtured, and alive. As they grow, children soak up information from their environment and try to make sense of it as best they can. With a nurturing adult guiding them, explaining the world, letting them explore within age-appropriate boundaries, being attentive and attuned to their needs, and providing a safe, loving environment, children can develop a stable sense of understanding, self, safety, trust, and love.

This kind of environment can be provided to varying levels on a continuum of completely safe, loving with age-appropriate boundaries, to completely unsafe, unstable, rejecting, invalidating, abusive, or neglectful. The level to which the environment tends toward the aversive, traumatic end of the spectrum will influence the experiences, beliefs, feelings, physiology, and behaviours a child will go through in childhood but also later in adulthood.

More explicitly, as children’s brains are building their understanding of the environment, distressing childhood experiences will be built into the foundation of how the child will expect the world to be and interacts with the world around them. This is exacerbated by the fact that children do not yet have a strong set of coping skills and resources, and are relatively powerless and dependent.

To find out more about how trauma therapy can help you recover from past trauma, book a consultation with psychologist Dr. Esslin Terrighena, please contact (852) 2521 4668 or

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