Trauma

Mental illness and trauma

How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime

Almost all adults are products of their childhood experiences. Whether you had a sheltered childhood, or you were witness or victim to a traumatic event, adulthood is about understanding how these past experiences affect us, as well as learning how to carry them forward in a positive way.

Unfortunately, many problems that begin to occur during adulthood – like depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease and obesity – are often the direct result of childhood trauma that has gone untreated.

While it is vital to treat these ailments that arise, it’s also important to address the root experiences that have caused these things to grow in the first place. For many, that means revisiting traumatic events that were experienced at an impressionable age – it means uncovering childhood trauma.

Here’s how childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime.

Trauma and the effect on brain development

Childhood is a crucial time for brain development, and this development during the early years of life is key to how we learn, respond and behave later on. Often, a child’s brain is compared to that of a dry sponge – it is ready and quickly able to retain a lot of water (or in this case, information).

But brain development is not dependent on the biological process. Rather, it depends on environmental factors including prenatal care, nutrition, and parenting. Through these experiences, information is collected and interpreted, and it is here that a child learns fundamental life lessons like the boundaries of right and wrong, their ethical compass, how to critically think, and how to safeguard against possible dangers.

Negative past experiences that cause trauma, however (or traumatic experiences like the absence of a parental caregiver) have a profound effect on how a child’s brain will develop, and this will change how they respond to society in later life. For example, a traumatic experience in childhood may prime the brain to be expecting fear around all corners. In adulthood, this will lead to a heightened sense of stress in everyday life, and chronic stress is determined as ‘one of the six leading causes of death’.

Understanding and accepting our past experiences, then, is crucial to overcoming the maladies that arise in adulthood.

The difficulty of learning new behaviors in adulthood

The challenge associated with overcoming something like childhood trauma in adulthood is our ability to ‘think differently’. Adult brains are often less porous than childhood brains, and it can be challenging to shift perspective and reach a level of acceptance that helps us reduce the consequences associated with trauma.

This is especially true in someone who experienced severe trauma at a young age. Past traumatic events will impede one’s physical, emotional and spiritual sense of sense, and their brain development will likely have been halted or negatively impacted as a result. To learn a new way of looking at the world, then, can be tough.

Exploring the Adverse Childhood Experience Study

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

Felitti and Anda asked 17,500 adults about their ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) and asked them to range from physical experiences, to emotional ones, sexual abuse, parental neglect and the impact of parental mental illness or substance abuse, or even imprisonment.

An ACE scoring procedure was then devised, and for each answer that a participant answered ‘yes’, they gained a point. These scores were then correlated against health outcomes of each individual.

Felitti and Anda discovered something startling in their study: ACEs are common, and 67 percent of the participants experienced at least one ACE, while 12.6 percent had four or more. More importantly, there was a positive correlation between ACE scores and negative health outcomes in adulthood.

For example, a participant that scored four or more ACEs, their risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was two and a half times more than someone with an ACE score of zero.

Ultimately, what this study proves is that most negative past experiences are ingrained in our brains for the rest of our lives and they negatively impact our health.

Understanding the recovery journey for childhood trauma

The recovery journey isn’t necessarily about eradicating childhood trauma – ultimately, things like sexual abuse and parental neglect can’t ever be ignored or forgotten. Rather, viable treatment options are about understanding the effect that these experiences have had on a person as an adult and learning the tools and tricks to help manage, accept and retake control over negative childhood traumas. That way, the all-too-common side effects can diminish, and a person can live a happier and healthier life.  

To find out more about how childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime, you can watch Nadine Burke Harris, Founder and CEO of Center for Youth Wellness, an initiative seeking to create a clinical model that recognizes and effectively treats toxic stress in children, speak in the TED Talk below. You can also explore this interview with her by The New York Times.

For how Tikvah Lake Recovery can help guide you through the process of overcoming negative childhood experiences, as well as how we treat the side effects that arise as a consequence, contact our admissions team today.

Woman sits by window and writes

COVID-19 and the effect on trauma and PTSD

With all that is going on in this fast-paced and connected world we live in, the introduction of COVID-19 could be the tipping point for many in terms of mental health. It’s certainly testing the limits of what many of us can handle. This virus is impacting everyone on some level, and the intensity of impact will depend on the personal make up of each individual.

It is safe to say that everyone is experiencing an increase in anxiety and stress. This increase can be interpreted as trauma, depending on how each person processes the experience.

Here’s how COVID-19 and trauma are connected, and what you can do about it.

Understanding who is affected by trauma

Currently, many people are likely experiencing lower levels of trauma, related to:

  • Fear of infection
  • Having been infected
  • Home-schooling children
  • Financial change
  • Job loss
  • Loss of control
  • Uncertainty about the future
  • The loss of individual freedom.

Combine these added factors with countless other daily living issues that we already handle, and the average person feels like they are reaching their red line zone.

In regard to front-line workers, these people are experiencing higher levels of trauma than the average person. They constantly deal with the public, and hospital staff, post office workers and grocery store personnel alike are constantly exposed to the virus (and must witness the toilet paper wars).

Right now, healthcare workers are among those worst affected by trauma. They risk their lives, day in and day out, are taking care of the COVID-19 patients, trying to remain positive for those individuals, all while coping with their own set of personal stressors – not seeing their family, no sleep, and burnout, to name a few.

In order to cope with these added stressors, many people are resorting to increased alcohol use, and drug use. This is common of those who must handle intense amounts of stress. For those working at home and bored, a copying strategy is increased food intake. Individuals with pre-existing patterns of using and abusing substances are at risk of forming addictions. With restrictions on our usual coping and de-stressing options – such as gyms, swimming and group social support activities – it is important to be aware of trauma symptoms and to try to adopt healthy coping mechanisms.

At this point, most of us do not know what the future holds, and not knowing can result in greater anxiety. For a large portion of society, COVID-19 may be the first time that mental health for yourself and others has become apparent.

What are some symptoms of trauma and PTSD?

Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Feeling detached or numb
  • Guilt
  • Panic
  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance of triggers
  • Avoidance of people that create stress triggers
  • Anger
  • Problems sleeping

Other symptoms and stressors of anxiety and depression associated with trauma include:

  • Excessive worrying
  • Feeling restless and on edge
  • Muscle tension
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Excessive guilt
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Reckless behavior
  • Fatigue
  • Change in appetite
  • Change in eating pattern
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Physical pain
  • Persistent sadness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • And even suicidal ideation

As mentioned earlier, symptoms may vary in intensity or duration from mild to severe. Risk depends on an individual’s level of exposure to trauma and their personal experience in coping. To reduce the risk of PTSD during the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals should follow some basic suggestions.

Mindfulness in the time of COVID-19

Be mindful and stay in the present. Focus on what is occurring to you now. Don’t focus on the past or what may occur in the future. Understand and feel what is occurring to you now. Know and process your internal triggers. Do not fight current emotions. Surf your feelings, understand them, experience them, and accept them as part of yourself.

Keep an eye on your thoughts, emotions and habits, too. If any of these are causing stress, discontinue engaging in that activity. A good example would be engaging in social media continuously during this time. We recommend choosing just two media providers and limit yourself to those.

Do not stress over what you cannot control. Focus on what you can control. This practice can bring back the more balanced feeling that we are accustomed to. You can engage in family movie nights, Zoom trivia games with close and distant friends. Allow yourself personal space, journal your feelings, attempt meditation, utilize music, reading and craft time, give your close family and loved ones the gift of their personal space. Oh, and try to get plenty of sleep.

These are interesting times we live in. There are many interesting experiences to be processed and to gain knowledge from. This can be a time of family renewal and for re-establishing your core values. This shared experience can assist in bringing us together. Seek the knowledge and remain hopeful. Enjoy today for being today.

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