Supporting Children

The Alarm System That Stays On

21 July 2021  |   5 min read

This article was first published on My Mental Health on 29 November 2020.

“When children continue to experience distress and their brain’s alarm system remains switched on for more than a month, they are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Our brain is one of the most important organs in our body. It acts as the control centre for our body, ensuring that it functions properly. Different structures within the brain are responsible for different functions.

The memory centre, otherwise known as the hippocampus, is responsible for forming and storing long-term memories. Examples include how you feel on your first roller coaster ride, receiving your first trophy in school, or falling off a bike for the first time.

The emotion centre, otherwise known as the amygdala, is responsible for detecting possible danger in our environment and keeping us safe. Crisis events can come in many forms – failing exams, being taunted, or getting lost in a shopping centre. Other examples include natural and man-made disasters such as earthquakes, fires or acts of terrorism. Accidents such as car crashes, scary or stressful medical experiences, the death of loved ones or family violence. Any situations that causes distress can count as a crisis.

When we encounter situations that are perceived to be threatening or dangerous, the amygdala is activated, sending a message to the rest of our body that there is a threat.

However, some people who have experienced traumatic events may find that their body’s alarm system stays on to keep them safe, even after the threat has passed.

The brain switches to survival mode and activates the fight, flight or freeze response to help us survive the stressful situation. It is an instinctive evolutionary safety mechanism, our bodies’ very clever way of protecting us. Most of the time when we are no longer under threat, the brain’s alarm system switches off and the body begins to calm down or relax.

Crisis responses may be experienced by children in the form of feelings, thoughts, behaviours and physical symptoms. For example, children may feel sad, scared, guilty or angry. Distressing memories, images, or sounds of the stressful event may play over and over in their minds. They may have difficulty sleeping or eating. Some children may regress in behaviour, or start behaving younger than their age. After a crisis, children may also complain about experiencing pain such as headaches and stomachaches. It is important to note that every child responds differently to a crisis. A child’s response is dependent on several factors such as age, developmental level and the parent- child relationship, and social support.

When the body feels threatened or stressed, the brain stores memories differently. These memories tend to focus on details relating to feelings, and the experiences taken in by the senses, such as the sound, smell, taste, or colours in the environment. This causes memories related to the traumatic event to pop up suddenly when something in the present reminds us of it. This can occur across different settings such as in schools or at home.

When this happens, we continue to behave as if we are still in danger even though our environment is safe. For example, when we continue to look out for signs of potential danger and threat or may be easily startled by certain sounds or sensations, even when the situation is not actually dangerous.

Children are especially vulnerable when experiencing a crisis because they have less capacity for self-protection and survival than adults do. Children may be less able to understand and cope with stressful events because their abilities to reason and regulate their emotions are still developing.

When children continue to experience distress and their brain’s alarm system remains switched on for more than a month, they are at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. However, there are professionals who can help children learn how to calm their bodies down and reset their brain’s alarm system so that it goes back to normal.

Thankfully, only a small percentage of children develop post-traumatic stress disorder after a traumatic event. With support, most of them are able to cope and overcome such experiences, and return to activities they used to enjoy, no longer affected by the things that once bothered them.

 

The content is republished with permission from the Trauma Network for Children, led by KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital.

Images and content sources:

The Stay Prepared – Trauma Network for Children (TNC) programme is a joint collaboration between KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH) and Temasek Foundation. It aims to enhance the psychosocial capability of the Singapore community to support children and youth after crises or traumatic events. For more resources, visit the Trauma Network for Children Website at www.childtraumanetwork.sg.