How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime

Mental illness and trauma

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.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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