Physical, sexual, and emotional trauma all affect the brain and can lead to a diagnosis of a variety of psychiatric conditions and diseases. Over the years, the links between trauma and psychiatric diagnoses have become more apparent as researchers continue to study them.
One recent study links traumatic events in childhood to poor brain development and the inevitable development of related academic problems, addictions, depression, and even heart disease.
They also found that traumatic childhoods lead to an increase in substance-related hospitalizations and occurrences of overdose. Another study found links to suicide in the same population.
The effects of experiences of trauma can be compounded when sufferers experience guilt and shame related to their depression. It makes it much more difficult for them to be resilient.
Stress has an impact much greater than being a mild irritation. Research shows it also plays a major role in our ability to think logically.
The more psychosocial adversity someone experiences, the more likely they are to develop a mental illness. This can include psychological trauma in adulthood that brings about negative changes and feels threatening to them.
The same factors are tied to the development of substance use disorders. Today, many researchers are studying links between therapeutic practices like mindfulness meditation that can be used to modify PTSD sufferer’s responses to triggers and traumatic memories.
But, there is much more research to be done on the ways stress and trauma can compound to create problems for people later in life.
How is Dopamine Production Being Studied?
Researchers are beginning to look at data of dopamine levels over time for patients who suffer from PTSD. They can use PET scans after exposing study participants to stress and gauge their reactions.
They have found that the more long-term an experience of adversity was, the more it affected someone’s dopamine production, preventing them from making enough. This makes it harder for them to experience pleasure and can make it more difficult for someone to handle a stressful situation.
To begin the study, researchers asked participants if they had experienced a lot of stress as a child. Then, they asked if they experienced a lot of stress as an adult. Some of the indicators they used to define a stressor in childhood included instances of abuse at home, bullying at school, or the loss of a parent to death, illness, or incarceration.
For the adult stressor indicators, they used the development of life-threatening medical conditions, job loss or abrupt job changes, breakdowns in relationships, periods of unemployment, discrimination, and bereavement, among other factors.
Once they had answered those questions, they were exposed to scripted verbal feedback with a negative tone to trigger a stress response. The researchers recorded their brain’s response using PET scans. That allowed them to measure dopamine levels.
They found that the group with both childhood and adult traumatic events tended to have the lowest dopamine responses. This is most likely related to their elevated threat perception abilities.
The groups with fewer stressor factors in their childhoods had better dopamine responses. While the researchers didn’t want to draw too many conclusions from their small sample size, they were certainly able to prove that more research should be done on the links between dopamine dysfunction and psychosocial stress.
How Is This Study Important?
This study has many limitations. One of them is that as humans we have recall bias on our memories. We may not be able to accurately self-report our experiences.
Another potential limitation is that the sample size was so small, it’s difficult to know what factor genetics could have played. The lead researcher on the study, Dr. Michael Bloomfield, stated that while his research couldn’t conclude that long-term traumatic and stressful experiences and a reduction in dopamine response were the primary cause of many mental health conditions including addiction, they were a plausible mechanism for altering the brain and creating a higher risk for mental illness.
Bloomfield’s study provides an important window into the link between trauma and the development of additions. More research could be used to develop approaches to prevention and new avenues for PTSD treatment.
Bloomfield would also like to study the links between poor dopamine levels and the development of other health conditions.
It’s clear that it’s very important that we begin to examine ways to limit stress as a benefit to us all. Addiction and stress are not tied to any individual racial or socioeconomic group. Poverty and discrimination can be just as big of a risk factor for stress as a high-pressure college prep high school.
Even the activities that kids play in school today can contribute to stress. Many students feel the need to compete at a high level for scholarships and other rewards. While hobbies can be stress-reducers for man people, for others they can have devastating consequences.
When people respond to stress with substances, the effects on their mental health can be even more significant. When PTSD is combined with an alcohol use disorder, the two conditions become much more severe than either on its own. This can make veterans with the two conditions three times more likely to attempt suicide.
How Can We Respond?
The most important thing we can do to help those experiencing adversity is to listen to their needs. You have to help to reinforce their resilience by intervening with their stress and giving them tools for stress management. That way, they can improve their responses to stressors and triggers.
Research is beginning to show that we may be able to observe the effects of PTSD on brain structure. It might be possible to view a response to a trigger and study the changes in signals in the amygdala and hippocampus.
It’s important that we continue to study these responses and the roles that stress and adversity play in the development of substance abuse disorders, relapses, and the recovery process. New research is beginning to show that childhood mistreatment can be associated with preferences for increases in interpersonal distance and displeasure responses to touch.
We may find as a society that reducing stress in vulnerable groups is an important part of advancing our collective public health goals. Addiction prevention efforts focused on risk reduction are a way to make use of all of this study data to help those suffering today.