Experiences of trauma are very common and multiple studies suggest that between half to two-thirds of young people will have been exposed to at least one traumatic event by the age of 16. The rates are much higher for young people in the care of family and human services, or involved with the justice system. In particular, young people from refugee backgrounds or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are likely to have experienced much higher levels of trauma. Naturally those working in front line emergency services or the armed forces are much more likely to experience trauma, including vicarious trauma.
Unlike single event trauma, developmental trauma involves prolonged and repeated experiences of trauma. This takes many forms, from poor attachment after birth, neglect, poverty, vicarious (watching others being traumatised) to active traumas of physical and sexual abuse. Emotional abuse is very common with life-long negative effects. The effects of trauma can be transferred to later generations, through parental behaviour and epigenetic memories. These traumas have been labelled as Complex Trauma or Complex PTSD, but the timing of trauma is important, so the label Developmental Trauma is a better fit, as found by research.
The responses to Developmental Trauma are an interaction between evolutionary protective mechanisms and the individual’s genetic and epigenetic factors, with the aim to survive in a toxic environment until puberty, to produce the next generation. At puberty the brain stops growing and is pruned for efficiency (which can lead to new problems) and behavioural programming switches to competing with your peers to attract the best mate, to produce and sustain the next generation (humans have the longest dependency on parents). The timing of trauma is important, such as being bullied in early adolescence, just when you need to be winning socially, can be devastating.
The greater the number and severity of traumatic experiences, the greater the risk of mental and physical health disorders (as the brain controls everything). The negative impacts can be immediate, get worse over time or appear later in life. Because the brain is dysregulated, there is mental distress, high anxiety (leading to smoking and substance use), depression, poor performance (unemployment, increased rate of accidents) and interpersonal behaviour problems. Because of the interaction with individual genetic and epigenetic factors, developmental trauma has a major role in psychosis, specific anxiety states, mood disorders, personality disorders, eating disorders, alcohol and other substance misuse. This is also true with obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammation and immunity. There is a dose correlation between the severity of trauma and the severity of symptoms, whichever disorder is diagnosed.