How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime

Simply put, childhood trauma is a risk factor for almost any health issue that may develop years down the road.

From depression and anxiety to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and obesity, childhood trauma can not only be a direct cause of these physical and mental issues, but what’s worse, sometimes the past trauma goes unrecognized altogether, so the symptoms may be treated, but not the cause. 

Affected Brain Development During Childhood 

Childhood is a fundamental time in human development, more so than any other phase in life.

Physical growth is obvious, but neurological growth is more critical and complicated. Dr. Bruce Peery, a specialist in childhood trauma, writes,

“The functional capabilities of the mature brain develop throughout life, but the vast majority of critical structural and functional organization takes place in childhood.”

Because children’s brains are developing, trauma can and will affect that development, sometimes severely. 

Brain development is not dependent on the biological process, but rather it depends on environmental factors, including prenatal care, nutrition, and parenting.

If a child experiences trauma, which includes but is not limited to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, then their brain development can be halted, the brain’s pathways and hormones affected.

In a fervent TED talk, Burke Harris, a California paediatrician, cites research that links childhood trauma to a myriad of serious health issues.

Watch Nadine Burke Harris’ TED Talk:

She notes that “toxic stress” causes changes in the brain and hormonal system.

When children have a repeated “fight-or-flight” response, health problems can occur later in life. 

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study 

Harris discusses the Adverse Childhood Experience Study, conducted by Dr Vince Felitti and Dr Bob Anda at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention between 1995 to 1997.

These researchers asked 17,500 adults about their “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect, parents’ mental illness, substance abuse, or incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence. 

For every question that was answered “yes,” the participant would get a point on their ACE score.

The researchers then correlated the ACE scores against health outcomes. 

The findings were striking. ACEs are common; in fact, sixty-seven percent of the population had at least one ACE, and 12.6 percent had four or more ACEs. The higher the ACE score, the worse the health outcomes. 

For example, if someone had an ACE score of four or more, their risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was two and a half times someone with an ACE score of a zero. For hepatitis, it was also two and a half times. For depression, it was four and a half times. For the risk of suicide, it was 12 times. 

Other studies have been done on the effect childhood trauma has on a person long-term, and the results are consistent. A study published in Psychiatric Times examined the relationship between traumatic childhood experiences and suicidality in adulthood.

Data were obtained from 22,559 people with an average age of 47. This study found that suicide attempts are significantly higher in adults who experienced physical abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic abuse as a child. 

Chronic Stress Leads to Health Issues 

childhood trauma and addiction

If someone experiences trauma as a child, they will more than likely have stronger adrenaline surges than someone who has not.

These frequent surges cause wear and tear on the body, and over time, can cause chronic stress. 

Chronic stress increases inflammation in the body and is responsible for a broad range of illnesses, including cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases.

Chronic stress also promotes the spread of cancer through the lymphatic systems. This research study shows how stress hormones disrupt the lymphatic system and act as “fertilizer” to promote the spread of cancer. 

Other health issues that can be a result of chronic stress are: 

  • Anxiety 
  • Depression 
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems 
  • Memory and concentration impairment 
  • Weight gain or loss 

Unresolved childhood trauma and addiction are also linked. Research repeatedly shows that childhood trauma serves as a main cause of substance abuse.

As Camino’s Program Director says, “One of the biggest contributors to relapse is stress…And one of the biggest contributors to stress is unaddressed or unresolved trauma.” 

The bottom line? Early childhood trauma has lasting effects that may appear in different forms, including health issues, mental/emotional issues, and/or behavioural issues. 

Help is Available 

Past trauma is usually the root of other physical, emotional, and mental issues. That means that it needs to be treated in order to heal fully.

There are many ways to get help from childhood trauma, including inpatient treatment.

Here at Camino, we take trauma very seriously, and our clinical team utilizes a variety of evidence-based treatment approaches to treat our clients. 

We have found that experiential therapies (those that involve treatments other than talk therapy) are especially effective in treating trauma. Some of these include art therapy, psychodrama therapy, and EMDR therapy. 

As we say, simply put, resolve the trauma, resolve the problem. 

Ameet Braich - Camino Recovery Spain

Ameet Singh Braich, a distinguished Clinical Director at Camino Recovery, is renowned for expertise in addiction and trauma resolution. With 15+ years of experience, he transforms lives through a holistic therapeutic approach. His research focuses on childhood maltreatment's impact on cognitive, emotional, and social functioning.

A dynamic speaker and trainer, Ameet empowers clients to achieve lasting recovery, prioritizing trauma resolution and relapse prevention. His diverse training includes EAP, crisis intervention, and EMDR. Committed to positive transformation, Ameet equips individuals across fields to address challenges of addiction.

More from Ameet Braich

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