Girls’ brains react differently than boys’
Girls process trauma differently than boys. Apparently, estrogen prompts a larger area of neurons to fire during adverse events, leading girls to remember traumatic incidents for longer and with more intensity than boys.
You might remember Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s recent testimony that the reason she could remember the faces and laughter of the two young men who tried to rape her when she was 15 was because of chemicals released by the brain during stress. It’s why those memories haven’t faded or stopped affecting her behaviour 40 years later.
Faced with similar dangers, more parts of a girl’s brain will “light up” than a boy’s, according to a recent report titled “Gender and Trauma” that focuses on justice-involved girls in Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
As well, researchers noted that the insula was smaller in girls subjected to repeated trauma than in boys with similar histories. The insula is the part of the brain responsible for emotional awareness. It’s also in charge of interoceptive processing, or noticing when the body feels hot, cold, tired or tense.
The knock-on effects of trauma
Girls are more likely than boys to develop mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and PTSD, that remain persistent problems in adulthood. They are more likely to enter the justice system, to self-harm, and to attempt suicide. Traumatized girls are also more likely to enter abusive relationships as teens and adults, encountering even more violence or sexual assault.
Why? Exposure to trauma in childhood impairs normal brain development. When kids feel unsafe at home all the time, they don’t learn to evaluate risks properly. For example, the brain translates shouting and adrenaline as normal after-school activities. Since shoplifting ramps up adrenaline, it must be safely normal too.
How does yoga help justice-involved girls with trauma?
After practicing yoga, the young women participating in the study actually had increased activity in the insula! Remember, this part of the brain was found to be smaller in girls from traumatic backgrounds.
This makes sense because asana, controlled breathing and mindfulness all work to improve concentration and body awareness – the very tasks assigned to the insula.
Other positive effects of yoga on young women in the study included:
- improved self-regulation and emotional development
- improved neurological and physical health
- healthier relationships and parenting practices
Breaking the trauma cycle for girls in detention
Girls are getting a crap deal, trauma-wise. Not only are they more likely to be sexually abused, sexually assaulted and the victims of violence, they are more likely to carry the effects of trauma in their bodies and brains permanently.
If a single traumatic event can still bring a wealthy white psychologist like Dr. Ford to tears 40 years later, imagine the effects of a chronically abusive environment on a young woman without resources or privilege. How likely is it that an impulsive, aggressive teen from an abusive home is going to stumble upon a mindfulness practise on her own? What if she’s already in prison?
That’s why the report concludes that the way forward is to scale-up existing yoga programs for girls in custody and, eventually, bring mindfulness programs to all prisons.
We definitely share that sentiment at Yoga Outreach. It’s why we run two weekly yoga classes at Alouette Correctional Facility for Women in BC, and have a girls-only yoga class at Burnaby Correctional Facility for Youth. We also have a weekly class with teen girls through PLEA, a non-profit that offers community-based addictions and justice services for young people in conflict with the law. Finally, we are working closely with the BC Society of Transition Houses to bring yoga to women and children fleeing violence in 24 locations around the province. Amazingly generous volunteers lead all of our classes.
It’s gratifying to read that the effects of our outreach go even deeper than what we see on the outside. It’s not just about a calmer external demeanour. Yoga actually creates and strengthens connectors in the brain and nervous system, making it more likely these young women will escape the damaging cycle of trauma as adults.