Child Abuse Can Impair Brain Wiring

Adults who were abused as children have abnormalities in their brains. Specifically an impaired structure and functioning of cells in the anterior cingulate cortex. This is a part of the brain which plays an important role in the regulation of emotions and mood. The researchers believe that these changes may contribute to the emergence of depressive disorders and suicidal behaviour.

One of the abnormalities is less myelination of axons. Myelination occurs in childhood and allows the nerve impulse to be conducted over axons between neurons. This decreased myelination may alter functional coupling between the cingulate cortex and subcortical structures such as the amygdala and nucleus accumbens (areas of the brain linked respectively to emotional regulation and to reward and satisfaction) and contribute to altered emotional processing in people who have been abused during childhood.

What can be done about this? Is there a way to compensate for the fact that axons in abused people have less myelin?

I don’t know, but I hope so.

Summary: McGill researchers report those who suffer from traumatic experiences during childhood, like severe abuse, show significant abnormalities in the structure and cell function in the anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain associated with emotion and mood regulation. Researchers believe these changes may contribute to depressive disorders and suicidal ideations, often considered a long term effect of trauma suffered during early life.

Source: McGill University.

For the first time, researchers have been able to see changes in the neural structures in specific areas of the brains of people who suffered severe abuse as children.

Difficulties associated with severe childhood abuse include increased risks of psychiatric disorders such as depression, as well as high levels of impulsivity, aggressivity, anxiety, more frequent substance abuse, and suicide. Severe, non-random physical and/or sexual child abuse affects between 5-15 % of all children under the age of 15 in the Western world.

Researchers from the McGill Group for Suicide Studies, based at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University’s Department of Psychiatry, published research in the American Journal of Psychiatry that suggests that the long-lasting effects of traumatic childhood experiences, like severe abuse, may be due to an impaired structure and functioning of cells in the anterior cingulate cortex. This is a part of the brain which plays an important role in the regulation of emotions and mood. The researchers believe that these changes may contribute to the emergence of depressive disorders and suicidal behaviour.

Crucial insulation for nerve fibres builds up during first two decades of life

For the optimal function and organization of the brain, electrical signals used by neurons may need to travel over long distances to communicate with cells in other regions. The longer axons of this kind are generally covered by a fatty coating called myelin. Myelin sheaths protect the axons and help them to conduct electrical signals more efficiently. Myelin builds up progressively (in a process known as myelination) mainly during childhood, and then continue to mature until early adulthood.

Earlier studies had shown significant abnormalities in the white matter in the brains of people who had experienced child abuse. (White matter is mostly made up of billions of myelinated nerve fibres stacked together.) But, because these observations were made by looking at the brains of living people using MRI, it was impossible to gain a clear picture of the white matter cells and molecules that were affected.

To gain a clearer picture of the microscopic changes which occur in the brains of adults who have experienced child abuse, and thanks to the availability of brain samples from the Douglas-Bell Canada Brain Bank (where, as well as the brain matter itself there is a lot of information about the lives of their donors) the researchers were able to compare post-mortem brain samples from three different groups of adults: people who had committed suicide who suffered from depression and had a history of severe childhood abuse (27 individuals); people with depression who had committed suicide but who had no history of being abused as children (25 individuals); and brain tissue from a third group of people who had neither psychiatric illnesses nor a history of child abuse (26 people).

Severe, non-random physical and/or sexual child abuse affects between 5-15 % of all children under the age of 15 in the Western world. image is adapted from the McGill news release.

Impaired neural connectivity may affect the regulation of emotions

The researchers discovered that the thickness of the myelin coating of a significant proportion of the nerve fibres was reduced ONLY in the brains of those who had suffered from child abuse. They also found underlying molecular alterations that selectively affect the cells that are responsible for myelin generation and maintenance. Finally, they found increases in the diameters of some of the largest axons among only this group and they speculate that together, these changes may alter functional coupling between the cingulate cortex and subcortical structures such as the amygdala and nucleus accumbens (areas of the brain linked respectively to emotional regulation and to reward and satisfaction) and contribute to altered emotional processing in people who have been abused during childhood.

The researchers conclude that adversity in early life may lastingly disrupt a range of neural functions in the anterior cingulate cortex. And while they don’t yet know where in the brain and when during development, and how, at a molecular level these effects are sufficient to have an impact on the regulation of emotions and attachment, they are now planning to explore this in further research.

One particularly bad episode of my mother beating the hell out of me…

This is not easy and I don’t really want to do this or subject you to it, but apparently you have to face these things, come to terms with them, grieve over them and release them Many of the books, almost all of the books I’ve read say this. So here goes…

One particularly bad episode of my mother beating the hell out of me was when I was four years old. She came to pick me up from preschool. We got home. I was chewing gum that a friend of mine had given me. I was not allowed to chew gum because my mother thought I would get cavities. But my friend had offered it to me, and being the forbidden fruit, I had taken it and popped it in my mouth.

My mother saw me chewing. She asked what I had in my mouth. I became very scared and said it was candy and spit it out on the ground before we went inside the house. She asked me again inside and I didn’t say anything. She went outside, found the piece of gum I’d spit out, came in and started punching me in my face. She had rings on. She hit me as hard as she could, when her hand got tired, she took off her shoes and hit me with those.

I had black eyes, a bloody nose, fat lips, bleeding copiously. The house was dark and I sat there, blood dripping from my face , black and blue marks getting bigger on my body. How does a four year old handle this onslaught from the one person who was supposed to love her? I don’t remember, I have no emotional memories of this event even though it is recorded in my brain vividly and accurately. The first emotion I remember was after the incidence. When my mother saw what she had done to me and felt guilty and came over and started to clean the blood off my face. I felt pure hatred. I felt anger. I knew what she had done was wrong. I knew I did not deserve it, and I hated her for it.

These kinds of things happened regularly, whenever she felt like it, she would completely lose control and beat me into a pulp. She used shoes, sticks, large cutting board sized wooden boards, hitting me against walls and furniture and leave me bleeding and bruised. With my hatred of her growing every time.

Finally, she dragged me by my hair, up to a second floor room. I was 14 years by then, bigger than her. She was whaling on me, hitting me, kicking me, when I got so angry, I lifted my hand to strike her. I didn’t hit her, but I wanted to. She immediately stopped. Went downstairs and told my aunts that I tried to hit her. They all came to me and said “How could you lift your hand on your mom, you must apologize!” I just looked at them and thought, FUCK that, I won’t apologize! And I didn’t.

I hated my mother, almost all the time. Of course I did love her, too. Very confusing, she wasn’t horrible to me all the time, but whenever she wanted to, she pummeled me. She had no control, no one to whom she was accountable. All my relatives except my adored grandmother looked the other way, but my grandmother was bedridden by then and couldn’t do much about it except shout at my mother to stop. My mother shouted back and told my grandmother that I was her daughter and she could do whatever she wanted with me. Not quite true, but that’s what she, in her crazed mind, thought.

From four years of age to 14, I was horrendously abused, blood, gore, she probably broke my nose, I do have a broken nose. Black and blue marks. Hidden with clothes so I could go to school, or I simply stayed at home if I looked too much like hell.

Did I deserve this, NO! Can anyone wonder why my flight or fight response is overactive?
Did I get love, affection, encouragement? Yes, from my grandmother. Did it make a difference, of course it did. Did it wipe out all the effects of the abuse inflicted upon me by my mother? No. Did it negate the fact that my father abandoned me at age 5? No.

Sometimes I wonder how, after suffering all this, without addressing it, how have I survived? Strength. That’s how. I was strong enough to know that my mother was wrong when I was 4 years old. I must have cried, I don’t remember it, but I was strong enough to get up the next morning, and the next morning and the next and go on with my life, never knowing when the insane woman would beat me to a pulp again.

I was strong enough to forgive her in the late 1990’s, realizing that this old woman was not the same person who abused me, this old woman was my mother who was as sorry as she could be that she abused me. We did have a good relationship for a few years before she passed away in 2005.

Now I am doing all the inner child work that adult survivors of child abuse have to do to get their lives back. I am 55 years old and what happened to me when I was 3, 4 years old still affects me. So I am reparenting myself, letting myself experience and mourn what happened to me and I am hoping that will make me “whole” again. That’s what the books, therapists, psychologists, that’s what everyone says. Be there for the frightened child, the “inner child,” be loving and comforting to her and things will get better.

I think what this means is to make my fight or flight response less triggerable. When I am feeling intense emotions, possibly out of place, then if I can calm myself down and not have a cow, that’s progress. Imagine the child I was, how could I NOT have an overactive fight or flight? Of course I did. Any little thing could have been an inducement for my insane mother to beat the living daylights out of me. So now, I have to reprogram my brain to not feel things at the catastrophic levels I used to as a child. I’m thinking that’s what we’re doing with all this inner child stuff. Self calming, self soothing.

I am reading books, upon books. Gleaning whatever is appropriate for me and hoping that I will heal. I feel I am healing. I am healing. Every time my fight or flight gets insane, I calm myself down. I also remind myself that I am not alone, in that many others have gone through this and worse, and I have many friends and family members who love me, and whom I love dearly. I’ve put two pictures in this post, one the absolute most happiest day of my life, the day my son was born, with my mother holding him. She was not the same person in this pictures as the one who abused me, and I forgive her with all my heart and tell her that I love her and I hope her spirit is in peace. The second picture is of the day we took my son home. Another very happy day of our lives. And so we move on and heal and grow and live our lives with strength and love.

Sometimes life is not fair. But lemonade’s still good!

Aral my newborn baby!

A very happy day as well! Two days after my son was born. Taking him home!


The happiest day of my life! A few minutes after my son was born. My mother is holding him.

Been tackling abuse/abandonment issues. Thank goodness, bipolar is under control!

 My bipolar disorder (BPD) is under control, has been for roughly a year now! For that I must thank a good friend, who refused to see me any other way than at my best. I took this friend’s advice and increased my lithium to 900 mg per day. And voila! Bipolar wise I am stable. It’s a good thing too, because dealing with this abuse/abandonment “thing” would have been a million times more difficult if the BPD wasn’t lying low. 

What I am learning about abuse/abandonment is that it is one (two?) of the most painful things one can go through. The feelings stored inside me of pain, despair, terror, shame, and fear, massive amounts of anxiety, anger from when I was a little girl being subjected to all this, what is it, insanity, criminal behavior, sociopathy? Well, just pick one. Anyway, those frightening and deeply painful and anxious feelings, forgotten feelings, I now have to bring to the fore and feel them, and process them as an adult and then supposedly, they go away. I am feeling them alright, last night I was reading something about abuse/abandonment survivors and addiction to a variety of things. Something about what I was reading made me feel like I was going to die. At first I tried to run away from it, but then I told myself that this is exactly what I have to feel and process to get better. So I tearfully thanked those feelings. 

So here’s the thing, you are horribly abused, over and over, as a child, you have horrible emotional scars but you hide those feelings away, they are too painful to feel. And you have to survive the next beating, you can’t sit around feeling sorry for yourself. So now, as an adult, you have a repository of all these awful feelings and unmet needs, and they pop up when they are most unwelcome. And you over react, you feel like death, you basically turn into that little battered, unprotected, unloved child you were when you least want to. So now, as an adult, in order to stop reacting like an abused/abandoned child, you have to bring those terrifying feelings to your consciousness, feel them, process them and let them go. This is how you get over the pain and violence that happened to you, the pain and violence that happened to me when I was 4-14 years of age.  One more thing, you cannot just bring up these feelings at will. They are deeply hidden, and anyway, who would willingly want to feel like death? These feelings come up in response to situations where something reminds your subconscious of how things were in your childhood. Or some other stimulus, like reading something, etc.  Writing about each incident you remember over and over so that you go from a child’s perspective to finally an adults view of what happened also helps. There is another exercise that I call “Little, Big, and You as the Mediator” I will post about that next time. 

Healing, love, and laughter. May our lives be full of those! Hugs, my friends. 

I am in awe and so inspired!

If this young woman could overcome her abuse as a child, I am sure I can too. Not only is she gorgeous and intelligent, she is strong, amazingly strong! I will write a detailed account of my abuse too, not to horrify anyone, but to get my power back. And once again I say, if she could overcome what she did, then so can I. I thank her for writing this and for inspiring me and scores of others as well, I’m sure.

These were her words that inspired me the most: “Though I still suffer my share of flashbacks and emotional scars, I live with a determination to experience as much peace and joy in adulthood as possible. Until now, I have been afraid to share my story. I’ve been afraid to allow readers to see my tattered clothing, my scars and vulnerability. I’ve been terrified of admitting that I come from such an ugly and painful place. But fear should be faced head-on and if I am going to fight it, I will do it in a forum that allows the opportunity to help anyone who can relate to it find the courage to move past the past or reach out to get help to escape a painful present.”

Wow! Brilliant!

Healing The Scars of Child Abuse: ‘Until Now, I’ve Been Afraid To Share My Story. But Fear Should Be Faced Head-On’

“Don’t move or your head will roll!” warned the man with the cold, loaded .22 to my 8-year-old temple. Paralyzed with fear, I stood with stone legs, praying they would not shake as they always did when my father got this way. Though he’d tell anyone who would listen that he had fought in Vietnam, the truth was his drunken “flashback” episodes were merely delusional fantasies brought on by watchingRambo a dozen too many times. His penchant for violence was common and notated by the bite marks, pinch marks and blood-filled welts that covered my body on a steady basis. He seemed to enjoy the power that came with seeing me in a state of terror. Tonight was no different.

His eyes were bloodshot and the heavy, thick foam that had formed around his mouth from the saliva that had accumulated while he was screaming made him look like a mad dog. I responded to his questions with one-word answers, all the while fearing I might say something wrong and lose my life. After standing motionless for what seemed like hours, I suddenly felt the hot sensation of skin being yanked from my skull as I was dragged by my hair and thrown against a wall for being “born bad.” This was a favorite excuse of my father’s to beat me. Second only to the fact that I was not the boy he wanted me to be (though that did not stop him from calling me “son”). I often wondered if my being born Brendon instead of Brenda would have prevented him from tormenting me the way he did.

Adulthood has answered this question.

On most nights, while my peers took baths and watched television, I was being bullied and told that I was a “bad seed” who was destined to make mistakes. He explained that it was his duty to keep me in line since I was so inherently bad that I would fall by the wayside, regardless of my intention. If I complained, he’d remind me that my mother had left and he could put me up for adoption, after all, so I should be grateful. He likened his “spanking” to a natural preventative measure such as taking a multivitamin. “Get daddy’s belt,” he would demand. If I garnered up the courage to ask what I had done to deserve a beating, the answer was always “in case you do something tomorrow.” I do not remember much else of what he yelled at me that night, but the sensation of the inside of my arms being pinched, my pinkies being bitten and the warm blood dripping down my forehead as the result of a belt buckle smashing into my eyebrow is a memory that haunts me whenever I look into the mirror and see the scar it left behind.

Though violence had been a part of my life since birth, I never lived with the impression that what went on in our home was normal, nor did I feel responsible for my father’s behavior. I saw him as a demonic presence that somehow found its way into the lives of the innocent people who surrounded him. This was mainly myself, my grandfather and whatever woman my father happened to be married to or dating at the time. To me, my father was the ultimate culmination of all things I had been taught were “bad and unholy” on my Sunday trips to church with my grandfather. I often felt I was living out the stories I would read in the Bible, where good took on evil — only in our house, the good never seemed to stand a chance. The “good” in my house was my grandfather, a man so honorable, gentle and caring that I based my ideas of the God I read about on his disposition.

To say that my grandfather was the only person in my life who made me feel as though he cared if I ate, slept, lived or died would be a gross understatement. “I am your best friend and you are mine,” he would say as I sat on his lap, enjoying the candy he had snuck into my room and hidden under the pillow at the top of the army cot I slept on. My beatings hurt me, but the pain I endured was nothing compared to what I felt when I had to watch my frail best friend beaten and humiliated. Witnessing my hero receive lashings that left his glasses broken and back covered with lacerations made me feel the kind of hatred that leaves bile on your tongue. Our time alone was full of conversation and laughter, almost normalcy, but that would change as soon as we would hear the clanking sounds of my father’s boots on the pavement outside of the front door. We’d sit in fear in my room behind a closed bedroom door, both secretly wishing we had the ability to protect the other from whatever fate had in store for us that night. Unfortunately, one was too young, the other too old, and both far too weak.

Wondering if God truly heard our prayers for safety, I asked my grandfather why God had not intervened and had allowed my father to continue to hurt us. He explained to me that as long as we were good people, God would take care of us, and he instilled in me that all prayers were heard and answered if they came from those who were honest in their requests. From that point on, I started praying that my father would never come home. “I hope daddy dies,” I said to my grandfather. Stunned, my loving grandfather scolded me and told me never to stoop to such a negative and spiteful level, regardless of what others were doing around me. These words remained burnt in my mind but gave me little comfort on the nights my father would come drunk and violent, a routine as common for us as dinner and rest were for others.

Then, of course, there was the shame.

The neighbors in our cockroach-infested apartment building spoke of the “drunken lunatic” who lived in apartment 1A, and none of the children I so desperately wanted to play with were allowed to get near me. Treated with the shame that belonged to my father, I learned at a young age that the world of laughter and Barbies, a place with ice-cream cones and bedtimes, had no place for little girls with welts and tattered clothing. Thankfully, my grandfather had a childlike love of checkers and games, along with a heaping pile of patience, so I was able to play and laugh as I imagined other children did. I loved my grandfather’s company but I resented my father for his behavior and how it made my having friends an impossible dream.

I knew everyone knew of his antics, but I had somehow convinced myself that despite the bald patches and long-sleeved shirts, no one knew I was hit. That dream was shattered one night while doing my father’s laundry in the laundromat. Two of my classmates came in with their mother. I watched with envy as they giggled and played together, both receiving the motherly affection I craved but never knew. Suddenly, one turned to me and asked, “Do you know the song, ‘Dear Mister Jesus’?” I knew it well. The song was about a little girl who was beaten by her parents and ashamed of it. I had seen the video on the television and memorized the song but I dared not answer her. Before I could escape the room, the two girls started singing it. I demanded they stop, but my pleading went unnoticed as it did with everyone but my grandfather. It was the first time I was aware that my secret was not a secret at all. People knew and it shattered my spirit.

When school teachers and church members saw me falling asleep out of sheer exhaustion and unable to sit down due to searing burns brought on by beatings from leather belts, hangers, wires and flyswatters the previous night, law officials were often called in. Women would come into the school to watch me undress, gasp at the marks and listen to my story. I learned after a few “meetings” with my father that these well-intentioned men and women were excellent in coming in and repeating everything I had told them in confidence, but “protecting me” was a whole area of expertise they lacked. Keeping my mouth shut and lying about my wounds became my new specialty. When the beatings would leave marks on my lower legs and arms, I would cover up in jeans and long-sleeved shirts. My father called this loyalty. I called it survival. “You know daddy is sorry,” he would say the day after, handing me a present of some kind. “You don’t want daddy to go to jail, do you?” he would ask. I would shake my head no and secretly pray he would leave and never come home. This was a man who smashed my guinea pig against the wall and killed it in front of me when I forgot to put the clothes in the dryer. There was no room for error.

With my promises to lie to doctors and hide my welts, the only clues anyone had that my father was still as brutal as ever were the late-night screaming on his part and loud pleading on the part of his chosen victim. This was usually me or his wife or girlfriend, as my grandfather had too much grace to yell or yelp.

This continued until I was removed from the home. My grandfather got a place of his own far away from my father and remained my only light in a very dark world. He passed away a month before I was to move in with him. I found myself homeless and heartbroken for most of my teens, but also hopeful. Because of my grandfather, I knew there was a better life out there waiting for me. I promised myself that I would honor him by getting an education and making my time on earth matter, even if only to my grandpa and myself. I got up at 4:00 a.m. and took three buses to make sure I didn’t have to attend my 20th school. I slept in a storage room at USC before getting into American and attending college, and I slept out all night in front of where President Clinton was to speak in order to meet him before I applied for — and was granted — an internship at The White House. With the help and guidance of a number of mentors, I eventually realized my dream of becoming a published author, all the while building a family of friends who have more than made up for the lack of love and support I felt as a child.

Though I still suffer my share of flashbacks and emotional scars, I live with a determination to experience as much peace and joy in adulthood as possible. Until now, I have been afraid to share my story. I’ve been afraid to allow readers to see my tattered clothing, my scars and vulnerability. I’ve been terrified of admitting that I come from such an ugly and painful place. But fear should be faced head-on and if I am going to fight it, I will do it in a forum that allows the opportunity to help anyone who can relate to it find the courage to move past the past or reach out to get help to escape a painful present.

This post is not about my strength, it’s about yours. Whether you were held or beaten, cared for or neglected, happy or sad, take a moment to remind yourself that we are not defined by what has been done or done to us, but by what we choose to do with the time we have left.

Ending Shame With Self Compassion

This article and the book called “It Wasn’t Your Fault: Freeing Yourself of the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion,” found at “” are both written by Beverly Engel LMFT  

“Shame is the lie someone told you about yourself.”Anais Nin (attributed)
Several months ago I wrote a blog on how self-compassion can heal the shame of childhood wounds and I received many queries about shame and self-compassion from Psychology Today readers. I’m happy to announce that my book, “It Wasn’t Your Fault: Freeing Yourself of the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion,” has just been published (New Harbinger). I’d like to address some of your queries and share some of the major ideas in the book with you here.
If you were a victim of childhood abuse or neglect, you know about shame. You have likely been plagued by it all your life without identifying it as shame. You may feel shame because you blame yourself for the abuse itself (“My father wouldn’t have hit me if I had minded him”), or because you felt such humiliation at having been abused (“I feel like such a wimp for not defending myself”). While those who were sexually abused tend to suffer from the most shame, those who suffered from physical, verbal, or emotional abuse blame themselves as well. In the case of child sexual abuse, no matter how many times you have heard the words “It’s not your fault,” the chances are high that you still blame yourself in some way—for being submissive, for not telling someone and having the abuse continue, for “enticing” the abuser with your behavior or dress, or because you felt some physical pleasure.
In the case of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse, you may blame yourself for “not listening” and thus making your parent or other caretaker so angry that he or she yelled at you or hit you. Children tend to blame the neglect and abuse they experience on themselves, in essence saying to themselves, “My mother is treating me like this because I’ve been bad,” or, “I am being neglected because I am unlovable.” As an adult you may have continued this kind of rationalization, putting up with poor treatment by others because you believe you brought it on yourself. Conversely, when good things happen to you, you may actually become uncomfortable, because you feel so unworthy.
Former victims of child abuse are typically changed by the experience, not only because they were traumatized, but because they feel a loss of innocence and dignity and they carry forward a heavy burden of shame. Emotional, physical, and sexual child abuse can so overwhelm a victim with shame that it actually comes to define the person, keeping her from her full potential. It can cause a victim both to remain fixed at the age he was at the time of his victimization and to repeat the abuse over and over in his lifetime.
You may also have a great deal of shame due to the exposure of the abuse. If you reported the abuse to someone, you may blame yourself for the consequences of your outcry—your parents divorcing, your molester going to jail, your family going to court.
And there is the shame you may feel about your behavior that was a consequence of the abuse. Former victims of childhood abuse tend to feel a great deal of shame for things they did as children as a result of the abuse. For example, perhaps unable to express their anger at an abuser, they may have taken their hurt and anger out on those who were smaller or weaker than themselves, such as younger siblings. They may have become bullies at school, been belligerent toward authority figures, or started stealing, taking drugs, or otherwise acting out against society. In the case of sexual abuse, former victims may have continued the cycle of abuse by introducing younger children to sex.
You may also feel shame because of things you have done as an adult to hurt yourself and others, such as abusing alcohol or drugs, becoming sexually promiscuous, or breaking the law, not realizing that these types of behavior were a result of the abuse you suffered.
Unbeknownst to them, adults who were abused as children often express the overwhelming shame they feel by pushing away those who try to be good to them; by sabotaging their success; by becoming emotionally or physically abusive to their partners; or by continuing a pattern of being abused or subjecting their own children to witnessing abuse. Former abuse victims may repeat the cycle of abuse by emotionally, physically, or sexually abusing their own children, or may abandon their children because they can’t take care of them.
Shame can affect literally every aspect of a former victim’s life, from your self-confidence, self-esteem, and body image to your ability to relate to others, navigate intimate relationships, and be a good parent to your work performance, ability to be learn new things, and ability to care for yourself. Shame is responsible for myriad personal problems, including: self-criticism and self-blame; self-neglect; self-destructive behaviors (such as abusing your body with food, alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes, self-mutilation, or being accident-prone); perfectionism (based on fear of being caught in a mistake); believing you don’t deserve good things; believing if others really knew you they would dislike or be disgusted by you (commonly known as the “imposter syndrome”); people-pleasing and co-dependent behavior; tending to be critical of others (trying to give shame away); intense rage (frequent physical fights or road rage); and acting out against society (breaking rules or laws).
Shame from childhood abuse almost always manifests itself in one or more of these ways:
o It causes former abuse victims to abuse themselves with critical self-talk, alcohol or drug abuse, destructive eating patterns, and/or other forms of self-harm. Two-thirds of people in treatment for drug abuse reported being abused or neglected as children (Swon 1998).
o It causes former abuse victims to develop victim-like behavior, whereby they expect and accept unacceptable, abusive behavior from others. As many as 90 percent of women in battered women’s shelters report having been abused or neglected as children (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2013).
o It causes abuse victims to become abusive. About 30 percent of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2013).
The truth is that for most former victims of childhood abuse, shame is likely one of the worst effects of the abuse. Unless you heal this pervasive shame you will likely continue to suffer from its effects throughout your lifetime.
Facing the problems that shame has created in your life can be daunting. You may be overwhelmed with the problem of how to heal the shame caused by the childhood abuse you experienced. The good news is that there is a way to heal your shame so that you can begin to see the world through different eyes—eyes not clouded by the perception that you are “less than,” inadequate, damaged, worthless, or unlovable.
The Healing Power of Self-Compassion
Like a poison, toxic shame needs to be neutralized by another substance—an antidote—if the patient is to be saved. Compassion is the only thing that can counteract the isolating, stigmatizing, debilitating poison of shame.
Many of you may be aware of the writings of Alice Miller. Miller believes that what victims of childhood abuse need most is what she called a “compassionate witness” to validate their experiences and support them through their pain (Miller 1984). For many years I have personally experienced how healing my being a compassionate witness is for my clients, as well as how transformative my having a compassionate therapist had been for me.
In recent years, many others, including major researchers have taken up the subject of compassion. Their work has revealed, among other insights, that the kindness, support, encouragement, and compassion of others have a huge impact on how our brains, bodies, and general sense of well-being develop. Love and kindness, especially in early life, even affect how some of our genes are expressed (Gilbert 2009, Cozolino 2007).
The Research on Self-Compassion
By studying much of the research on compassion, I discovered that while I had come to understand the healing powers of compassion, I hadn’t truly recognized the importance of self-compassion—extending compassion to oneself in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering—in the treatment of psychotherapy clients, particularly former victims of child abuse. In 2003, Kristin Neff published the first two articles defining and measuring self-compassion (Neff 2003a, Neff 2003b); before this, the subject of self-compassion had never been formally studied. There have since been over two hundred journal articles and dissertations on self-compassion.
One of the most consistent findings in this research literature is that greater self-compassion is linked to less psychopathology (Barnard and Curry 2011). And a recent meta-analysis showed self-compassion to have a positive effect on depression, anxiety, and stress across twenty studies (MacBeth and Gumley 2012).
Self-compassion also appears to facilitate resilience by moderating people’s reactions to negative events—trauma in particular. Gilbert and Procter (2001) suggest that self-compassion provides emotional resilience because it deactivates the threat system. And it has been found that abused individuals with higher levels of self-compassion are better able to cope with upsetting events (Vettese et al. 2011).
There is also evidence that self-compassion helps people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In one study of college students who showed PTSD symptoms after experiencing a traumatic event such as an accident or life-threatening illness, those with more self-compassion showed less severe symptoms than those who lacked self-compassion. In particular, they were less likely to display signs of emotional avoidance and more comfortable facing the thoughts, feelings, and sensations associated with the trauma they experienced (Thompson and Waltz 2008).
Finally, in addition to self-compassion being a key factor in helping those who were traumatized in childhood, it turns out that self-compassion is the missing key to alleviating shame. Confirming what I knew from my extensive work with former victims of child abuse, research shows that traumatized individuals feel significant levels of shame and/or guilt (Jonsson and Segesten 2004). Shame has been recognized as a major component of a range of mental health problems and proneness to aggression (Gilbert 1997, Gilbert 2003, Gilligan 2003, Tangney and Dearing 2002). And it has been found that decreases in anxiety, shame, and guilt and increases in the willingness to express sadness, anger, and closeness were associated with higher levels of self-compassion (Germer and Neff 2013).
One clinician, Paul Gilbert, author of “The Compassionate Mind,” found that self-compassion helped to alleviate both shame and self-judgment. A study of the effectiveness of Gilbert’s Compassionate Mind Training (CMT), a group-based therapy model that works specifically with shame, guilt, and self-blame, found that the training resulted in significant reductions in depression, self-attacking, feelings of inferiority, and shame (Gilbert and Procter 2006).
In addition, research suggests that self-compassion can act as an antidote to self-criticism—a major characteristic of those who experience intense shame (Gilbert and Miles 2000). Self-compassion is a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. Self-criticism has a very different effect on our bodies. The amygdala, the oldest part of the brain, is designed to quickly detect threats in the environment. These trigger the fight-or-flight response—the amygdala sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and cortisol, mobilizing the strength and energy needed to confront or avoid the threat. Although this system was designed by evolution to deal with physical attacks, it is activated just as readily by emotional attacks—from ourselves and others. Over time, increased cortisol levels deplete neurotransmitters involved in the ability to experience pleasure, leading to depression (Gilbert 2005).Neurological evidence also shows that self-kindness (a major component of self-compassion) and self-criticism operate quite differently in terms of brain function. A recent study examined reactions to personal failure using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology. While in a brain scanner, participants were presented with hypothetical situations such as “A third job rejection letter in a row arrives in the post.” They were then told to imagine reacting to the situation in either a kind or a self-critical way. Self-criticism was associated with activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate—areas of the brain associated with error processing and problem solving. Being kind and reassuring toward oneself was associated with left temporal pole and insula activation—areas of the brain associated with positive emotions and compassion (Longe et al. 2009). As Kristin Neff (2011) aptly stated, “Instead of seeing ourselves as a problem to be fixed…self-kindness allows us to see ourselves as valuable human beings who are worthy of care.”
Of particular interest to me was recent research in the neurobiology of compassion as it relates to shame—namely that we now know some of the neurobiological correlates of feeling unlovable and how shame gets stuck in our neural circuitry. Moreover, and most crucially of all, due to our brains’ capacity to grow new neurons and new synaptic connections, we can proactively repair (and re-pair) old shame memories with new experiences of self-empathy and self-compassion.
In light of my research, I determined that in addition to offering my clients compassion for their suffering, I needed to teach them how to practice self-compassion on an ongoing basis in order to heal the many layers of shame they experienced.
Combining what I learned about compassion and self-compassion with the wisdom I’ve gleaned from my many years of working with victims of childhood abuse, I created a program specifically aimed at helping those who experienced abuse become free of debilitating shame. My Compassion Cure program combines groundbreaking scientific research on self-compassion, compassion, shame, and restorative justice with real-life case examples (modified to protect the subjects’ anonymity). Its proprietary processes and exercises help abuse victims reduce or eliminate the shame that has weighed them down and kept them stuck in the past.
By learning to practice self-compassion, you will rid yourself of shame-based beliefs, such as you are worthless, defective, bad, or unlovable. Abuse victims often cope with these false yet powerful beliefs by trying to ignore them or convince themselves otherwise by puffing themselves up, overachieving, or becoming perfectionistic. These strategies take huge amounts of energy, and they are not effective. Rather, actively approaching, recognizing, validating, and understanding shame is the way to overcome it.
Debilitating Shame
“Shame is sickness of the soul.”
Silvan Tomkins
While many people suffer from shame, not everyone suffers from what is referred to as debilitating shame. Debilitating shame is shame that is so all consuming that it negatively affects every aspect of a person’s life—his perceptions of himself, his relationship with others, her ability to be intimate with a romantic partner, her ability to raise children in a healthy manner, his ability to risk and achieve success in his career, and her overall physical and emotional health. The following questionnaire will help you determine whether you suffer from debilitating shame.
Questionnaire: Do You Suffer from Debilitating Shame Due to Childhood Abuse?
1. Do you blame yourself for the abuse you experienced as a child?
2. Do you believe your parent (or other adult or older child) wouldn’t have abused you if you hadn’t pushed him or her into doing it?
3. Do you believe you were a difficult, stubborn, or selfish child who deserved the abuse you received?
4. Do you believe you made it difficult for your parents or others to love you?
5. Do you believe you were a disappointment to your parents or family?
6. Do you feel you are basically unlovable?
7. Do you have a powerful inner critic who finds fault with nearly everything you do?
8. Are you a perfectionist?
9. Do you believe you don’t deserve to be happy, loved, or successful?
10. Do you have a difficult time believing someone could love you?
11. Do you push away people who are good to you?
12. Are you afraid that if people really get to know you they won’t like or accept you? Do you feel like a fraud?
13. Do you believe that anyone who likes or loves you has something wrong with them?
14. Do you feel like a failure in life?
15. Do you hate yourself?
16. Do you feel ugly—inside and out?
17. Do you hate your body?
18. Do you believe that the only way someone can like you is if you do everything they want?
19. Are you a people pleaser?
20. Do you censor yourself when you talk to other people, always being careful not to offend them or hurt their feelings?
21. Do you feel like the only thing you have to offer is your sexuality?
22. Are you addicted to alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, shopping, gambling, or stealing, or do you suffer from any other addiction?
23. Do you find it nearly impossible to admit when you are wrong or when you’ve made a mistake?
24. Do you feel bad about the way you’ve treated people?
25. Are you afraid of what you’re capable of doing?
26. Are you afraid of your tendency to be abusive—either verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually?
27. Have you been in one or more relationships where you were abused either verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually?
28. Did you or do you feel you deserved the abuse?
29. Do you always blame yourself if something goes wrong in a relationship?
30. Do you feel like it isn’t worth trying because you’ll only fail?
31. Do you sabotage your happiness, your relationships, or your success?
32. Are you self-destructive (engaging in acts of self-harm, driving recklessly, suicidal attempts, and so on)?
33. Do you feel inferior to or less than other people?
34. Do you often lie about your accomplishments or your history in order to make yourself look better in others’ eyes?
35. Do you neglect your body, your health, or your emotional needs (not eating right, not getting enough sleep, not taking care of your medical or dental needs)?
There isn’t any formal scoring for this questionnaire, but if you answered yes to many of these questions, you can be assured that you are suffering from debilitating shame. If you answered yes to just a few, it is still evident that you have an issue with shame.
Shame is Not a Singular Experience
Just as the source of shame can be all forms of abuse or neglect, shame is not just one feeling but many. It is a cluster of feelings and experiences. These can include:
Feelings of being humiliated. Abuse is always humiliating to the victim, but some types are more humiliating than others. Certainly, sexual abuse almost always has an element of humiliation to it, since it is a violation of very private body parts and since there is a knowing on the child’s part that incest and/or sex between a child and an adult is taboo. (These taboos hold in nearly every culture in the world.) If the abuse involves public exposure—for example, being chastised or physically punished in front of others, particularly peers—the element of humiliation can be quite profound.
Feelings of impotence. When a child realizes there is nothing he can do to stop the abuse, he feels powerless, helpless. This can also lead to his always feeling unsafe, even long after the abuse has stopped.
Feelings of being exposed. Abuse and the accompanying feelings of vulnerability and helplessness cause the child to feel self-conscious and exposed—seen in a painfully diminished way. The fact that he could not stop the abuse makes him feel weak and exposed both to himself and to anyone present.
Feelings of being defective or less-than. Most victims of abuse report feeling defective, damaged, or corrupted following the experience of being abused.
Feelings of alienation and isolation. What follows the trauma of abuse is the feeling of suddenly being different, less-than, damaged, or cast out. And while victims may long to talk to someone about their inner pain, they often feel immobilized, trapped, and alone in their shame.
Feelings of self-blame. Victims almost always blame themselves for being abused and being shamed. This is particularly true when abuse happens or begins in childhood.
Feelings of rage. Rage almost always follows having been shamed. It serves a much-needed self-protective function of both insulating the self against further exposure and actively keeping others away.
Fear, hurt, distress, or rage can also accompany or follow shame experiences as secondary reactions. For example, feeling exposed is often followed by fear of further exposure and further occurrences of shame. Rage protects the self against further exposure. And along with shame, a victim can feel intense hurt and distress from having been abused.
The following exercise can help you discover what your primary feeling experiences of shame are.
Exercise: Your Feeling Experience of Shame
While you may have experienced all the feelings listed above, you may resonate with some more than others. Think about each type of abuse that you suffered and the various feelings that accompanied it. Ask yourself which of the items listed above stand out to you the most for each type of abuse, or each experience of abuse. In my case, for example, when I think about the sexual abuse I suffered at age nine, I resonate most profoundly with defectiveness, isolation, self-blame, and rage.
Further Defining Self-Compassion
If compassion is the ability to feel and connect with the suffering of another human being, self-compassion is the ability to feel and connect with one’s own suffering. More specifically for our purposes, self-compassion is the act of extending compassion to one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure, or general suffering. If we are to be self-compassionate, we need to give ourselves the recognition, validation, and support we would offer a loved one who is suffering.
Kristin Neff, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, is the leading researcher in the growing field of self-compassion. In her book Self-Compassion (2011), she defines self-compassion as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s experience is part of the common human experience” (224).
Self-compassion encourages us to begin to treat ourselves and talk to ourselves with the same kindness, caring, and compassion we would show a good friend or a beloved child. Just as connecting with the suffering of others has been shown to comfort and heal, connecting with our own suffering will do the same. If you are able to feel compassion toward others, you can learn to feel it for yourself; the following exercise will show you how.
Exercise: Becoming Compassionate Toward Yourself
1. Think about the most compassionate person you have known—someone kind, understanding, and supportive of you. It may have been a teacher, a friend, a friend’s parent, a relative. Think about how this person conveyed his or her compassion toward you and how you felt in this person’s presence. Notice the feelings and sensations that come up with this memory. If you can’t think of someone in your life who has been compassionate toward you, think of a compassionate public figure, or even a fictional character from a book, film, or television.
2. Now imagine that you have the ability to become as compassionate toward yourself as this person has been toward you (or you imagine this person would be toward you). How would you treat yourself if you were feeling overwhelmed with sadness or shame? What kinds of words would you use to talk to yourself?
This is the goal of self-compassion: to treat yourself the same way the most compassionate person you know would treat you—to talk to yourself in the same loving, kind, supportive ways this compassionate person would talk to you.
The Benefits of Practicing Self-Compassion
By learning to practice self-compassion you will also be able to begin doing the following:
o Truly acknowledge the pain you suffered and in so doing, begin to heal
o Take in compassion from others
o Reconnect with yourself, including reconnecting with your emotions
o Gain an understanding as to why you have acted out in negative and/or unhealthy ways
o Stop blaming yourself for your victimization
o Forgive yourself for the ways you attempted to cope with the abuse
o Learn to be deeply kind toward yourself
o Create a nurturing inner voice to replace your critical inner voice
o Reconnect with others and become less isolated
I hope I have been able to convey to you how self-compassion can help heal you of your shame. But it is difficult to adequately explain this concept in one blog. In the coming weeks I will write more blogs about how shame can be healed with self-compassion and explain to you how you can go about becoming more self-compassionate. As you continue reading the blogs and practicing the exercises you will grow to more fully understand what a powerful healer compassion can be.
In the next blog I will discuss the various obstacles that get in our way of becoming more self-compassionate including: our belief that self-compassion is the same as “feeling sorry for ourselves,” the belief that self-compassion is selfish, and our need to forgive ourselves for past actions in order to believe we deserve self-compassion.

“Child abuse produces damaging effects in bipolar patients.” Yes, true, but I am healing from all that!

Duh! People with bipolar d/o who have been abused as children develop the illness more than four years earlier than the not abused ones. They are twice as likely to attempt suicide and four times as likely to have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

But no suicide attempts here, not in the past, not in the present, and most definitely not in the future. I have too much to live for, my son, my family, and my friends and even my Flufffluff! However, I am certain I do suffer from PTSD. Some events throw me into a firestorm of fight or flight and I act so out of character and so extreme, that after the storm passes, I am just left shaking my head and saying “Was that really me?” No it wasn’t the true, the real me, it was me under the influence of active PTSD. I think along with healing the abandonment issues with the techniques I am using, breathing, feeling the past pain, talk therapy, I will also diminish the effect of the PTSD resulting from child abuse. All this will allow my true self, which is warm, caring, loving, understanding, and patient to emerge and stay. These healing modalities will allow the abandonment anxiety and the abuse PTSD to hopefully mostly go away.

I have a small proof that they are working, last night we went to dinner, and after we got home, I couldn’t find my phone. Now normally, I would literally have been beside myself, I mean sitting beside myself, my fight or flight in the full on position, as if a massive lion was attacking me. BUT last night, I CALMLY went downstairs and looked for my phone in my car, not there. I CALMLY called the restaurant and asked if someone had turned in a phone, no. I remained calm and remembered I had the “find your phone” App, and used it on my computer, turns out it was in my condo, the sound was turned off. And I CALMLY found it! I noticed my calmness as all this was going on, it was a new feeling, to not be in full fight or flight mode. It was a new feeling, to BE OK!

I have other small victories, I was getting very anxious about an important issue in my life, and I was going to email out of that anxiety, but I calmed myself down (breathing) and talked my self out of acting out of anxiety. Something I wouldn’t have been able to do even 2 weeks ago. 

So I am learning, I am learning. And if I can learn, so can we all!

Child abuse produces damaging effects in bipolar patients

London: Childhood abuse and neglect can lead to a range of negative outcomes in patients with bipolar disorder, warns a study.
Bipolar patients with a history of childhood maltreatment developed the depressive mental condition more than four years earlier than patients with no history of maltreatment, revealed the study.

In addition, they were almost twice as likely to attempt suicide and nearly four times more likely to have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, up to 15 percent of people with bipolar disorder die by suicide, the research, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, showed.

“Our findings have important implications for clinical practice, as they suggest that a history of childhood maltreatment could be used as an early indicator of high risk for poor outcomes among individuals with bipolar disorder,” said Jessica Agnew-Blais, post-doctoral researcher at King’s College London.
Bipolar patients with a history of childhood maltreatment have more severe manic, depressive and psychotic symptoms; higher risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, and substance and alcohol misuse disorders; earlier onset of symptoms; more frequent manic and depressive episodes; and higher risk of suicide attempt, the researchers elucidated.

One in every 25 adults is diagnosed with bipolar disorder at some point in their life. The disorder is characterised by periods or episodes of feeling very low and lethargic (depression) or of feeling very high and overactive (mania), the researchers said.
It is important to identify bipolar patients with the greatest clinical need and risk as early as possible, in order to ensure that they receive the most timely and effective interventions to reduce their risk of poor outcomes, the researchers suggested.

Maltreatment in the form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse, or neglect, affects one in five children under 18 in Britain and is known to be highly prevalent in bipolar patients (up to 60 percent).

Byron Hamel: “I Am A Killer”


There are times in our lives when we have choices, and times when we do not.

When we are children, we are led by those in charge of us.  They tell us to do things.  Mostly, we do what they say.  We believe what they believe, and behave how they behave.  We observe, and emulate.  It’s part of how we learn.  It’s human nature.

A mother is like God to a child.  Her will is destiny.  Fate.  “Do it, now” says the father.  And the child does.  The master teaches the apprentice.  This relationship between parent and child is a sacred trust.  A way to maintain safety, build character, and establish vital life habits and skills.  IF -and I mean a very big IF- the parents use their power correctly.

Essentially, as children, we are led.  And we follow.  When we are led poorly, bad things can happen.

Choices are steered by forces and circumstances beyond a child’s control or understanding.  Children neither possess the reasoning, nor the physical requirements to take command of their own lives in any responsible way.  Their views of the world are filtered through rules, limits, directions…

As children, we are sheep.  And we are vulnerable.  We are as helpless against the wolves as we are against the shepherds.  And that is why so many of us are taken advantage of as children.

We can not fight back when adults hit us.  We WILL not fight back.  We just get hurt.  And that becomes the reality of our lives.  If we are threatened into silence or submission, we will usually concede.  We will usually be victimized until, by some happy accident, a caring person intervenes.

The choice to end parental abuse is not our own.  Not while we are kids.

If we are lucky or clever enough to escape our abusive situations alive, we become adults.  And then we are called upon to make our own choices.  To behave in responsible ways of our own choosing.

But how?  How the hell do we know what to do, if nobody ever taught us correctly?

Maybe we learned when we were little that the correct way to respond to somebody denying us what we want is to punch them in the ear.  Perhaps we were taught that unsolicited fondling of another person’s genitals is the appropriate way of showing love.  It could be that we were beaten every time we expressed emotion, and therefore grew to hold our feelings inside, fearing punishment.

Now that we are adults, our understanding does not magically shift on it’s own.  If our minds and hearts become corrupted, they remain corrupted until we change them.  And change takes work.  Change takes wisdom.

But we are lost.  We truly have not been led to a place of responsibility.  But here we are, tasked with being adults.  Surrounded by other people who seem to be doing just fine.  But we’re not like them, are we?  We don’t GET IT.  We still need to learn all that very basic stuff.

And there’s a lot of it.

We are left to lead ourselves.  To teach ourselves.  But we haven’t been trained to lead.  And we don’t possess the knowledge to teach.

So what do we end up doing?  Well, we follow.  If we do not take control, we continue doing the things we learned how to do, the way that we learned how to do them.

And that is not a good thing.  It is a bad thing.  It is what monsters are made of.  But we’re not monsters.  We’re just grown up kids who got a raw deal.  And now some new kid is smiling up at us.  And we are God to that kid.  That kid is our chance to do the right thing. That kid is why we are not going to follow.  We are going to choose for ourselves.

We the abused stand on the edge of decision.  And we need to make a vital choice.  We can do the difficult thing, and learn how to parent properly.  Or we can do the horrible thing, and continue the cycle of abuse.  We the abused to do not have the luxury of inaction.  We must choose.  One, or the other.

Now that we are the adults, we have the power to choose.  We can end parental abuse before it even begins for our own children.  It may seem impossible to you.  That makes sense.  Ending a cycle of abuse is hard to do.  And I mean VERY difficult.  But the alternative is the continuation of abuse.  And that is worse.  Further, it is unacceptable.  It is inadmissible.

We need to take control.  We need to take the reigns, and choose for ourselves.  We need to parent ourselves.  Correct our damaging beliefs and behaviors.  We need to become the source of love, safety, wisdom, and security that we wish we had when we were children.

This does not happen overnight.

It will take time.  We will need help.  We will need, perhaps, medication and therapy.  We will need to be kind to ourselves.  Patient and persistent.  If we are to succeed in this, we need to learn to love ourselves in all the ways that we were not loved as children.

With this effort, we find our voices.  We make our own choices.  We take our own actions.  We refuse to emulate the wills and ways of those who damaged us.


I made a good one.  I make good choices every day.

That is why I’m not a total piece of shit.



Byron Hamel was raised by a violent man who got the death penalty for torturing and killing a baby.  As a result of his upbringing, Byron dedicates his life to fighting child abuse.  He lives with Complex PTSD, Depression, and Anorexia.  Despite his obstacles, he’s an amazing dad to his two lovely daughters.

An award-winning Canadian journalist, and television producer, his documentary film, “A Breaking Cycle”, is a powerful journey into the world of tough bikers who protect abused kids.

Byron is currently writing for his blog Trauma Dad, and his book “I Am A Killer”, to be released in 2016 by the Gravity Imprint of Booktrope Publishing.  This post is an excerpt from his work in progress.  His writing challenges readers with both depth and simplicity.  It’s raw and funny, but leaves you feeling hopeful and inspired.