The Impact of Early Trauma on Your Mental Health

For years the brain and the body were treated as separate entities, which is somewhat mind-blowing (pun intended), given that the brain is a part of the body.

Fortunately, neuroscience research has offered us a look inside the brain and helped to shed light on the ellusive brain-body connection.

Like a complex electrical grid, our bodies are wired with nerves. From the tips of our toes to the tops of our heads, all the sensations and information we take in comes through our nervous system and travels to our brain. Likewise, messages from our brain travel out through our nervous system to create action. Many of these messages, like instructions to breathe happen without us being consciously aware.

Birth trauma refers to adverse experiences that may occur at birth, but extends from conception through age three. These experience impact the formation and development of the nervous system.

While infants and toddlers may not be able to articulate that they understand what is going on around them, their nervous system is finely tuned to pick up on disturbances in their environment.

These early traumas can imprint on the nervous system and result in increased sensitivity to external stimulation.

So what are some examples of early trauma exposure?

  • Maternal emotional stress (including depression, trauma, anxiety)- raises cortisol levels in utero

  • Attempted abortion

  • Substance exposure during pregnancy including nicotine, alcohol, drugs, pesticides, and smoke

  • Twin lost during pregnancy

  • Premature birth

  • Neonatal intensive care unit experience and early medical procedures

  • Unusually long or unusually fast labor

  • Cord tightly wrapped around the neck

  • Near death experience or deprivation of oxygen

  • Medical interventions such as C-section, forceps, vacuum extraction

  • Separation from the mother after birth or for extended periods during infancy

  • Painful medical interventions such as heal sticks, spinal taps, etc.

  • Maternal postpartum depression or strong anxiety

  • Maternal - infant separation

  • Hospitalization or surgery as an infant or in early childhood

These early experiences shape the nervous system and can become "stored" in the body by being encoded into our nervous systems. The impacts of these traumas can be mitigated through strong attachments and physical contact with caregivers.

Trauma can become exacerbated and foundational if these reparative relationships are not in place. For example, neonatal exposure to substances often results in birth complications including pre-term birth and NICU stays. It is imperative that caregivers of these babies spend as much time as possible making skin to skin contact with the newborn and creating attachment bonds.

In situations when the nervous system has been strongly impacted and that reparative relationship is absent, the nervous system of the developing child can become sensitized to trauma. As a result, infants grow into children who have more difficulty with emotional regulation and are hyper-vigilent.

Common thought is that personality is an ingrained trait. Neuroscience research is showing more and more that the experiences we have between conception, birth, and age 2 or three largely shape our personalities and our disposition. The idea that "they won't remember, so it's going to be fine," could not be more true. While an infant or toddler may not be able to make sense of things, exposure to trauma early in life may be more detrimental as the brain is going under rapid development and differentiation (Damese & Lewis, 2017).

If you have ever wondered why you are more sensitive to certain things, consider your birth history. While early trauma may not be 100% to blame, it is an often overlooked area as many people don't know anything about their gestational period or early years.

  • Are you highly sensitive?

  • Are you strongly affected by the moods or reactions of others?

  • Do noises, lights, or other sensations impact you strongly?

  • Do you feel overwhelmed in crowds?

  • Do you become overwhelmed or fatigued by sensory or emotional input?

  • Do you have auto-immune issues?

While this is not an exhaustive list of experiences or questions, these may be indicators of early impacts on the nervous system.

Get curious. If you have an ability to learn more about your birth and early years, do so- it may explain more than you think.

Danese, A., & Lewis, S.J (2017). Psychoneuroimmunology of early-life stress: The hidden wounds of childhood trauma? Neuropsychopharmacology, 42(1), 99-114. doi:

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Disclaimer: The information shared on this website is intended for educational and marketing purposes. It is not a substitute for seeking help from a licensed mental health or medical professional. If you or someone you know is in need of immediate assistance dial  911.