The lasting impact of past trauma on current health

Photo credit: Sharp Health News/Sharp HealthCare

If you experienced trauma as a child, you are not alone. In a landmark 1998 study, two-thirds of respondents reported having a traumatic experience in their early years. The study also revealed a link between trauma in a person’s past and poor health later in life.

Trauma results from exposure to an incident or series of events that is emotionally disturbing or life-threatening. Examples include:

  • Physical or emotional abuse
  • Childhood neglect
  • A family member with mental health or substance abuse issues
  • Exposure to violence in the community
  • Sudden, unexplained separation from a loved one

The study showed that the risk for health problems from past trauma increases with the number of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) someone has.

While it is commonly known that trauma can affect mental health, many are not aware of what it does to the body. Unresolved childhood trauma impacts physical health in two main ways: by leading people to engage in risky behavior as a means to cope, and by causing physiological changes to the body that lay the groundwork for chronic, stress-related diseases in adulthood.

Behavioral effects of trauma

Any type of early trauma can impact our ability to cope with life’s stressors. This can cause us to revert to poor coping mechanisms that provide instant gratification, including smoking, overeating and numbing painful emotions with substances such as alcohol and drugs. These high-risk health behaviors dramatically increase the risk for many health conditions, including heart disease, cancer, depression, obesity, diabetes and COPD.

Trauma affects everyone differently, depending on the circumstances, severity and length of exposure. Not all children or adults who are exposed to traumatic events experience long-term health problems. Certain factors in someone’s life can help buffer them from trauma’s worst effects.

“Some people are more emotionally resilient than others, whether that is due to genetic disposition or having protective factors such as a nurturing sibling or supportive adult,” explains Candy Elson, LCSW, lead social worker with Sharp Grossmont Hospital’s Behavioral Health Center. “Some are fortunate to have had a counter-balancing protective influence to offset the impact of early trauma, or have been able to get into therapy or receive education about the impact of trauma on their lives. This can significantly decrease its impact on general health.”

How the body changes after trauma

Early experiences with adversity are thought to affect future reactivity to stress by altering the neural circuits that control our body’s natural response. In other words, it can actually change a person’s brain structure, causing an increased potential for fear and anxiety, as well as long-term physical and behavioral health problems.

High levels or prolonged exposure to trauma causes the body to produce the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, activating normal protective processes of fight, flight or freeze. Unresolved traumatic experiences can stimulate these responses throughout life, even in nonthreatening situations. The resulting increased levels of stress hormones can lead to a chronic wear and tear effect on the body and lay the foundation for chronic stress-related diseases.

Help coping with past trauma

If you have trouble coping with past trauma, help is available. Seeking treatment or education from a mental health professional can have a significant, positive impact on your health and well-being. There are several therapeutic approaches to help people cope with past trauma.

“Psychoeducation about the impact of trauma can be very enlightening and liberating for those who have experienced it,” explains Elson. “Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) can help people find healthier ways to cope with life stressors. Mindfulness and meditation help people live in the present moment instead of reacting and catastrophizing when exposed to a triggering situation. When individuals are educated on triggering situations, it can be very empowering and help free them from old patterns.”

If you have experienced trauma and are interested in seeking help, it is best to start by setting up an appointment with your primary care doctor, who may refer you to a therapist or mental health professional for counseling, support and education. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also offers resources and education. To learn more, visit NAMISanDiego.org.

This article features experts from Sharp Grossmont Hospital. For more health stories visit www.sharp.com/news.

 

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