We know that experiencing a traumatic event can leave a person changed. But scientists have discovered that the stress changes in the brains of boys and girls are different. This is an important finding, because it can help steer treatment in different ways to help ensure recovery — both when results of trauma produce obvious behavioral change and when they don’t.
Myriad kinds of traumatic events can occur, of course. Some can be domestic, like moving to a new city, death of a family member or friend, and experiencing effects of divorce on the family. They can also be an occurrence in your town or neighborhood, such as witnessing or being involved in a major car accident, bullying, abuse or violent crime. World events can also cause traumatic stress — experiencing a natural disaster, violence, terrorism or war.
The Insular Cortex and Trauma
A recent study discovered that an area deep in the brain – the insular cortex — changed following a traumatic event. A crevice deep inside the brain that’s wired into many other areas, the insular cortex helps with the processing of emotions and the watching for signals coming from the rest of the body, monitoring its condition.
Of particular note in this study: With great consistency, whenever a traumatic event had been experienced, there was a change to the insular cortex. That change, however, varied by gender — in boys the area grew larger, while in girls it got smaller! In addition, part of the brain also accelerated the maturing process earlier in girls, causing puberty to begin at a younger age.
The girls, who received a reduction in this brain area for processing emotions, showed far more symptoms of trauma and stress. In boys, the effects were not as visible. In both sexes, the effects of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can include nightmares, flashbacks, blocking out or avoiding the recollection of the event and an inability to relax, plus problems eating and sleeping.
Why This Difference Occurs: Possible Theories
Human history has many trends. If we imagine young men and women thrust into the harsh realities of the world by some traumatic event, the varying change makes sense.
For girls, it signals that it may be time to grow up. In harsh conditions, such as in war-torn countries, you can’t remain a little girl as long. This is not to say that girls are more fragile — the emotional stress is simply more pronounced.
On the other hand, when we consider boys who experience violent trauma, it might be their new role to engage with the problem, to take the offensive posture and protect their family and home. You could say there is a design to it.
In a comfortable, modern, insulated existence, both sexes have more freedom to explore emotional sensitivity or potential in many areas of activity and interest. But when life is difficult, the human body may be engineered to steer us into roles that are better suited for survival and protection of the family.
Intervention specialists or therapists caring for youths who experience traumatic events, the study points out, need to keep in mind that PTSD signs may show up very differently in boys and girls. In fact, the boys may not show any signs, even though they may have dealt with something very difficult and painful.
Treatments can be tailored to these differences. The cues for progress may also be considered differently. No two cases are identical, but knowing generally why boys may not show any symptoms of PTSD, when girls do, is something to watch for. Boys still may need help and therapy but show no external signs.
The findings are just a flag raised to alert us to this difference. The exploration as to the meaning behind the changes in the insular cortex continues. The next step, the study reports, is to examine the effects on the areas most closely connected to the insular cortex — the story and its implications may run even deeper.
For now, it’s extremely valuable to recognize that boys and girls may have different reactions to trauma. If caretakers know this, they can benefit from knowing that treatment and symptoms can vary greatly between the sexes.
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