Childhood Experiences May Dictate Behavior During Tragedies


If you take a step back and think about your childhood, what’s your earliest memory? Chances are your earliest memory will have been a major emotional event, at least in the life of a toddler or small child. And major events throughout childhood help make us the people we become as adults — our values, personalities and even mental state. Can you identify the major life events that helped shape who you are?

Throughout our lives, we are constantly evolving — physically, intellectually and emotionally.  Opinions change about various subjects and the morals or values we held dear in the past may not seem so important as we age. Healthy adults are always changing and trying to better themselves and, more importantly, can easily adapt to challenges and new situations.

However, not all adults face adversity or change with equal aplomb. When faced with the same tragedy or event, one man may easily bounce back while the other cannot handle the emotional upheaval. 

Resilience in the Face of Tragedy

Whenever there is a tragedy, we tend to use the word “resiliency” to describe the phenomenon of men and women moving on and dealing with the inevitable consequences, whether physical, emotional or financial. A tragedy can be any number of things. A loss of a family member, a devastating natural disaster that destroys your home and injures you, or even acquiring a fatal illness are all examples of events that we classify as “tragedy”. If one shows resiliency after a tragedy, it usually means that they are seen to be pushing forward and maintaining a positive attitude while doing so.

There are many things that can cause a person to move on easily from a disaster. Strong friendships, good health, and secure finances are all factors that can help someone remain calm and keep going after they are forced to deal with something terrible. The emotional journey one must take after a tragedy is never easy and recovery often requires a lot of time and effort. Having emotional and financial support always helps. But lifestyle and environmental issues alone are not enough to explain the differences in how people cope in the aftermath of disaster.

So, what makes some people resilient in the face of tragedy while others shut down and cease to function as productive members of society? Recent discoveries in biology have shown that there are many things that determine who will be resilient and who will not. Like many facets of the human personality, it is believed that a mixture of brain chemistry, genetics, and early childhood experiences dictate how easily we will bounce back.

Traumatic Childhoods Produce Traumatized Adults

For years it was hypothesized that the way we handle tragedy or disaster had something to do with how we were raised — not necessarily that we were raised to be “tough”, but rather that we escaped the kind of early trauma or violence that breaks the human spirit. Now science is helping to prove that it’s more than just a theory.

The theory that our childhood experiences dictate how “strong” we will be in the face of adversity is fascinating and has already garnered the attention of mental health researchers. It turns out that a childhood filled with negative experiences, such as abuse or emotional neglect, can actually cause a person to react much differently to a tragedy than someone who had a more “normal” childhood.

When disaster strikes, the brain of a person who had a negative childhood will release certain chemicals and cause negative emotional and physical responses that will be different than someone who had a normal childhood. In essence, they will be as frightened and panicked as they were when they faced trauma as children. This fear response will make them unable to cope with the immediate stress of disaster in a healthy way and will be easily reactivated in the face of relatively minor issues or problems, long after the actual tragedy has passed. This prolonged stress response may even lead to mental illness such as anxiety or depression.

The brain is certainly the most complex organ in the human body and we are decades away from fully understanding how it works. However, the knowledge that past experiences shape present responses to disasters pushes us one step closer to finding its secrets and learning just what makes us tick. Whether we needed more evidence or now, this latest research solidifies the belief that a traumatic childhood can result in a permanently damaged adult.

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