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What Childhood Trauma Actually Does To Your Brain & How To Heal

Daniel Amen, M.D.
August 2, 2023
Daniel Amen, M.D.
Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist
By Daniel Amen, M.D.
Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist
Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc.
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Image by Chelsea Victoria / Stocksy
August 2, 2023

Your childhood upbringing plays a major role in your brain development. If you grow up in a happy, functional home, it supports the developing brain. However, when you experience childhood trauma—such as the death of a parent, neglect, sexual abuse, or other traumatic incidents—it negatively impacts the way your brain develops. Sadly, this can have lasting consequences on your mental health and cognitive function.

What are adverse childhood experiences?

Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, continue to affect people in adulthood. Many adults with emotional issues don't realize that the traumatic experiences from their childhood are at the root of their problems. And they certainly don't understand that those incidents changed the way their brain functions, which further contributes to their ongoing mental health issues.

Researchers have spent decades investigating the impact of ACEs on mental and cognitive well-being. Nearly 30 years ago, scientists at Kaiser Permanente teamed with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct a large study1 involving 17,337 adult participants.

The research team sought to identify how many ACEs they had experienced in addition to their lasting effects. The study included eight questions regarding abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and more. Roughly 25% of the participants reported three or more ACEs.

In the decades since that landmark study, the ACE questionnaire has evolved to include 10 questions covering:

  • Verbal or emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Neglect
  • Lack of food or security, or feeling unprotected
  • Losing a parent through death, divorce, or other means
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Having a family member with a drug or drinking problem
  • Having a family member with a mental health disorder or suicidal behavior
  • Having a family member go to jail

The ACE questionnaire is scored on a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 indicating a lack of trauma and 10 representing significant levels of trauma prior to reaching 18 years of age.

In general, higher scores are associated with increased mental health problems and cognitive issues. They have a greater impact on brain development.

How childhood trauma impacts the developing brain

Being exposed to traumatic experiences as a child triggers overactivity of the brain's stress response system. This affects the brain in several ways, including:

  • Neurohormone disruption: The chronic release of stress hormones can interfere with the production of neurotransmitters, which are foundational for optimal brain function.
  • Stunted brain development: Overexposure to stress can also disrupt the growth of important brain regions, including the hippocampus2. This area of the brain plays a critical role in memory formation.
  • Overactivation of some brain areas:Brain SPECT imaging studies at Amen Clinics show that childhood trauma is associated with increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which heightens sensitivity and causes you to be on the lookout for bad things to happen. This is known as hypervigilance.
  • Underactivity in some brain regions: On SPECT scans, traumatic experiences in childhood are also associated with decreased activity on the underside of the prefrontal cortex. This area acts as the brain's brake, keeping you from engaging in behaviors that are too risky. When this area is underactive, it is associated with impulsivity and a higher likelihood of making rash decisions that can get you in trouble in your relationships, at school, at work, or with the law. This also increases the risk of developing substance use disorders, which research shows is higher in people who have experienced childhood trauma3.
  • Constant fight-or-flight mode: Excessive levels of stress hormones can make a child's brain get stuck in a state of fight or flight. This can lead to a variety of problems later in life. For example, people may have difficulty developing healthy attachments as adults or may have problems with emotional control, social skills, self-regulation, and learning. It can also trigger aggression and nightmares.
  • Genetic changes: The brain impacts of ACEs may change a young person's genes, which can then be passed along to future generations. This means it isn't just the child's brain that is affected, but it can also change their children's and grandchildren's brains4.

Overcoming childhood trauma

If you have experienced childhood trauma, take note that certain therapies and lifestyle changes can help reduce the impacts. Suggestions that I often give to patients who have experienced trauma in childhood include:



Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a powerful psychotherapeutic technique that can be helpful for childhood trauma survivors.


Work with a psychotherapist

Working through adverse childhood experiences with a mental health professional can be beneficial in overcoming past trauma.


Address any alcohol and drug problems

Seeking treatment for these issues can be an important part of a comprehensive treatment plan.


Eat a brain-healthy diet

Adopt a diet that fuels the brain with nutrient-dense foods while eliminating or reducing sugar, fried foods, and ultra-processed foods.


Move more

Making physical activity a regular part of your routine increases blood flow to the brain to enhance its function.



Contributing to local charities or helping out in your community can improve social interactions and bonding.

The takeaway

For anyone who has experienced childhood trauma, it's important to make brain health a mainstay of your daily life. Seeking professional help and adopting healthy habits can be very beneficial in helping you cope with past traumatic experiences. With a comprehensive program, you can stop reliving the past and start moving forward in your life. You deserve it.

Daniel Amen, M.D. author page.
Daniel Amen, M.D.
Clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist

Daniel Amen, MD, is a clinical neuroscientist psychiatrist, physician, professor and 10-time New York Times bestselling author. He is a double board-certified child and adult psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics, Inc., which has eight clinics across the country with one of the highest published success rates for treating complex psychiatric issues with the world’s largest database of functional brain scans relating to behavior, with more than 160,000 scans on patients from 121 countries. Amen is the lead researcher for the largest brain imaging and rehabilitation study for professional football players that demonstrates high levels of brain damage in players with solutions for significant recovery as a result of his extensive work. His research on post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury was recognized by Discover magazine’s Year in Science issue as one of the “100 Top Stories of 2015.” Amen has authored and co-authored more than 70 professional articles, seven scientific book chapters and 40-plus books, including the No. 1 New York Times bestsellers, “The Daniel Plan” and “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” His most recent book, “Change Your Brain, Change Your Grades,” includes editorial contributions from his teenage daughter, Chloe Amen, and niece, Alizé Castellanos.