Childhood trauma affects adult decision making in negative and positive ways
The Sector > Research > Understanding Children > Childhood trauma affects adult decision making in negative and positive ways

Childhood trauma affects adult decision making in negative and positive ways

by Freya Lucas

November 02, 2022

The effects of childhood poverty on brain development and an adult’s ability to process and respond to challenging situations can be substantial and long-lasting, a recent study published by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety Ltd has found. 


Research by Charles Sturt PhD student Nicholas McFadyen has explored how early life stress affects brain functions and the negative and positive implications for those who have experienced childhood abuse. An excerpt of his findings appears below. 


Feeling helpless as a child


You may remember some aspects of what it was like to be a child. The helplessness, the lack of control, and other people making all the major decisions for us which would affect the course of our lives.


The things that happen to us as children affect more than just the pathways our lives can take – they alter who we become and how we think about and respond to the world. Events that occur in childhood, particularly stressful events, change the way the brain develops, the way we think, and the choices we make.


Early life stress is common


After surveying more than 1,000 people living in western countries across the world, my research found that around 70 per cent reported experiencing at least one significantly stressful event during childhood.


Early life stress such as childhood abuse, neglect, and low socio-economic circumstances is commonly associated with hindering one’s life progression. For example, childhood trauma is linked to a host of negative psychological disorders including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is also associated with an increased likelihood of engaging in harmful social behaviours including delinquency, substance abuse, and unsafe sex.


The effect of early life stress on the brain


Early life stress can result in altered neural connectivity and function which may be directly related to these adverse outcomes.


Research shows that childhood trauma makes emotional parts of the brain that react to threats more reactive and disconnected from regulatory areas of the brain. These neural changes are implicated in both the negative outcome associated with childhood abuse and cognitive functions which are also closely linked to these negative outcomes.


My research focuses on how early life stress affects these cognitive functions, and I conducted several experiments in this process.


 Wisdom can be attained from trauma


Although trauma is linked to many negative consequences, the way it changes the mind has definite adaptive value for surviving in the environment in which we were raised. If we are fortunate enough to escape that environment, then we can heal and grow in ways in which people without childhood trauma are not able to.


Assistance to start the healing process exists and is there ready to be used.


Mr McFadyen expects to submit his PhD in March 2023. To learn more about his work, please see here

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