What is the potential impact of childhood trauma on adult mental and physical health?

SAMHSA describes individual trauma as resulting from “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” In the mid-1990’s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente conducted a longitudinal study that focused on how exposure to trauma in childhood presented in 17,000 adults. Participants receiving physical exams completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences, as well as current health status and behaviors. This study concluded that there is a correlation between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and major risk factors for the leading causes of illness, disability and death as well as poor quality of life. The study showed that high doses of trauma affect brain development, the immune system, the hormonal system, tripled the risk for heart and lung disease and reduced life expectancy by 20 years.

Mental and physical health conditions and behaviors linked to ACEs include anxiety, arthritis, asthma, cancer, COPD, depression, diabetes, eating disorders, heart attack, heart disease, kidney disease, obesity, stroke, vision issues, substance use, risky sexual behaviors, unhealthy eating habits and lower workplace productivity. ACEs lead to disrupted neuro-development which causes social, emotional and cognitive impairment, an adoption of health-risk behaviors and then to disease, disability, social problems and even early death. Experiencing ACEs, as well as things like racism and community violence, without supportive adults, can cause what’s known as toxic stress. Findings suggest that this excessive activation of the stress response system can lead to long lasting wear-and-tear on the body and brain, increase the risk for mental illness and increase the symptom severity of mental disorders.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Mother treated violently
  • Substance misuse within household
  • Household mental illness
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Incarcerated household member

You can find more information at the Center of Disease Control and Prevention site for Adverse Childhood Experiences.

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