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Childhood Trauma

Healing Childhood Wounds With Psychedelic Therapy

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Experiencing abuse as a child has a significant impact on an adult’s quality of life. The result is often damaging, and raises a number of questions for general practitioners, such as the complexity of the diagnosis and types of available treatments. Psychedelic-assisted therapy, in the right context and with the right support, can help a person free themselves from dark memories and past traumas.

Childhood trauma and brain development primer courtesy of Anna Freud NCCF

How Do We Define Trauma?

Sadly, many children experience situations such as the death of a parent or a close family member, violence or accidents, abuse, or debilitating childhood illnesses.

Childhood trauma is defined as a traumatic experience that threatens injury and death, or causes terror at the time it occurs. Traumatic events include abuse (sexual and physical), violence (domestic and school), natural and human disasters.

According to the American Psychological Association of PTSD and Trauma in Children and Adolescents (APA), more than two-thirds of children report experiencing a traumatic event by the age of 16. 39- 85 percent of children witness community violence, and 25-43 percent are exposed to sexual abuse. In 2018 around 1,770 children died of abuse and neglect, which is higher by 0.4 percent than similar statistics recorded in 2014.

Trauma can have horrible effects on a child’s ability to think, learn, and concentrate, and can cause long-term emotional harm, particularly in relationships with other people. As a result, it can cause addiction, depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues in adults.

According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study in Kaiser Permanente’s San Diego Health Appraisal Clinic, the effects of childhood trauma can take many forms, and last long after childhood. This study collected information related to childhood abuse from over 17,000 adults in two sessions, from 1995 to 1997.

Symptoms and Consequences

·      Somatic Symptoms

The sufferer has a significant focus on thoughts, feelings and behaviours about health. This can cause major emotional distress and problems functioning. Sometimes the symptoms don’t have a medical explanation. However, the sufferer tends to do medical tests and unnecessary procedures to find any evidence of the serious health condition. As a result, the sufferer experiences  anxiety, depression and personality disorders.

·      Emotional Dysregulation

Children who grew up in abusive families don’t have healthy emotional coping skills and can’t learn how to manage emotions. Sufferer may find it difficult to regulate emotions when they are under stress or in an upsetting situation. Emotional dysregulation can result in chronic suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

·      Unstable Interpersonal Relationships

Relationships tend to be either very good or really bad. The signs may be more significant during important life events, such as marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth. When abuse happens in the family, or any trusted group, trauma worsens because of the betrayal. As a result, the sufferer loses their ability to see unsafe behaviour, stays in dangerous relationships, or becomes abusive themselves.

·      Avoidance

Adults can implement the strategies that they had during childhood when under stress. Sufferer seeks to avoid difficult emotions, thinking about them, or dealing with them. This can have a negative impact on the sufferer’s life, including careers, relationships, and personal interests. Avoidance can lead to increased anxiety and depression.

·      Dissociation and Depersonalization

Sufferer can lose a sense of reality and connection to time, place, and identity. As a response to the traumatic events, sufferers may not feel as if the world or the self is real. While detrimental in the long term, personal disconnection from surroundings can lower fear and anxiety, helping sufferers to get through, or survive, the traumatic experience.

·      Disorders of memory

Children who experience trauma don’t always have a clear picture of their memories from childhood, which complicates the understanding and treatment of that trauma. The memories involving traumatic events still exist, but are repressed, and can’t be recalled. 

·      Shame

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If a child is abused at a young age, they can think that they deserve it, especially if the abuser emphasizes that it’s the child’s fault, or the family members don’t believe that the abuse occurred. Sufferers commonly sink into depression, eating disorders, addiction, and suicide.

The Role of Psychedelics in Healing Childhood Trauma

Addressing childhood trauma is never easy. Therapies can reduce self-blaming and raise the trust in the relationships, but can also result in a range of mental, emotional and physical disturbances without the right approach. As a result, sufferers can experience deepening fear, self-rejection, and depression.

Therapies involving classic psychedelic drugs such as LSD, MDMA and psilocybin are changing psychotherapy for a wide range of emotional and physical disorders. This helps to increase people’s consciousness and openness which can lead to resolving childhood traumas.

Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca affects the limbic, paralimbic, and neocortical systems of the brain, which are involved in processing and regulating trauma, memory, and emotions. Ayahuasca is known for retrieving and unlocking repressed memories and emotions. This process can lead to a state of awareness. It can help a sufferer to gather lost pieces of memories, and in the process a person can relieve the traumatic events so they can be integrated into the consciousness again.

Since ayahuasca increases brain activity in the brain area involved in memory recovery, and the hippocampus is inactive during memory recovery, it seems possible that ayahuasca might be beneficial in the process of memory recollecting in childhood traumas.

Psilocybin

A medical study by Imperial College, London showed that patients went from feeling disconnected (from the world, themselves, and others) to a sense of connection. Patients also went from avoiding their emotions to accepting them.

Twenty patients performed an open-label trial of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. Patients consumed psilocybin mushrooms, with researchers following up after 6 months. According to the patients’ questionnaires, they felt “connection and acceptance” with psilocybin treatment, rather than with medications and talking therapies.

MDMA

MDMA has been showing promising results for the treatment of trauma from many events, including childhood and sexual abuse, military service, and other severe emotional distress. It alters mood and perception, and as a result, can produce joyful experiences and can facilitate the revisiting of traumatic memories and emotions in a therapeutic context.

LSD

With LSD, the sufferer can go much deeper into their consciousness. This includes facing not only childhood trauma but also much deeper emotions. When trauma runs too deep for MDMA to revisit, LSD-assisted psychotherapy can open the mind and help with the healing process.

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