When we get scared or stressed, our body sends the signal to our brain to release stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and we enter our fight/flight/freeze response. This makes our heart pump faster, our airways open so we can breathe better, our pupils dilate so we can see more clearly, we are ready for action. This stress response helps keep us alert and alive – we can run from danger or we can fight back against a predator, after the danger is gone, we move back in to homeostasis and emotional equilibrium is restored.
The Healthy Stress Response
The Unresolved Stress Response
If we grow up experiencing ongoing stress, the stress response is engaged for prolonged periods of time and the stress becomes what the ACEs Study refers to as “toxic stress” and this affects our brain development. It can decrease the efficacy of the nucleus accumbens, reward centre of our brain, which is responsible for sending a signal alerting our midbrain to release more dopamine, making us feel great. When this part of our brain isn’t as responsive as it should be we can experience anhedonia or become prone to depression. It has been hypothesized that this is what leaves those of us with a high ACE score vulnerable to addiction – using drugs or alcohol to get that rewarded feeling.
Elevated ACE scores can also impact the amygdala, the bit responsible for initiating our fear response. If the amygdala activated too frequently, it can become enlarged and lead to symptoms of hypervigilance, eventually leading us to chronic anxiety and an inability to trust our own perceptions of danger – because everything feels uncertain and frightening.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our ability to take in information and for making decisions based on that information. It helps us to make decisions based on both our emotions and thoughts. If this part of our brain is impaired we become impulsive, struggle to plan and work toward goals.
The ACE questionnaire continually mentions “often or very often” when asking us if something happened to us when we were young. The ACEs are examples of experiences that could cause us to have C-PTSD, so rather than there being trauma of the one big event type these are experiences that cause us to have Complex Post Traumatic Stress.