Various studies have found that exposure to emotionally traumatic events in childhood can have far-reaching consequences throughout adulthood. Not only does emotional trauma in the first eight years of life increase a person’s likelihood of psychological disorders, but it also increases his or her odds of suffering from chronic physical illness and the breakdown of the brain’s ability to regulate stress.
Increased Risk of Psychological Disorders
Psychological trauma during the early years is a risk factor for almost every kind of psychopathology. A number of disorders have been found to have a particularly strong connection with childhood emotional trauma. Mood disorders are much more likely in adults who suffered a traumatic experience in childhood. These include major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, dysthymic disorder (a mild, chronic depression) and cyclothymic disorder (a condition often thought of as a mild form of bipolar). The risk of anxiety disorders increases with childhood emotional trauma, including generalized anxiety disorder, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Schizophrenia and psychotic disorders appear more frequently in adults with a childhood history of trauma. Personality disorders as well as substance abuse and eating disorders are also more common among survivors of early trauma.
Serious Chronic Illness Among Early Trauma Survivors
Serious and even potentially debilitating physical illnesses are more common among adults who suffered childhood trauma. Researchers believe that the pathology of this increased risk of illness has to do with a handful of characteristics shared by most people who experienced trauma early on. These characteristics include elevated perceptions of stress and danger, sleep disruptions and disorders, small social networks and high body weight. These and other characteristics often result in chronic inflammation that promotes disease. Chronic illnesses that beset many adults who suffered childhood emotional trauma include cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, autoimmune disorders, metabolic disorders, asthma and allergies. These chronic illnesses can significantly reduce an individual’s quality of life, as well as increase the risk of early death. Childhood psychological trauma has also been found to increase inflammation in the brain, which may lead to breakdown of the blood-brain barrier. This, in turn, affects the way that individuals regulate their biological responses to future stressful experiences and makes them more vulnerable to stressors throughout their adult lives.
Preventing the Effects of Childhood Trauma
The ideal way to prevent the psychological and physical risks that adults survivors of childhood emotional trauma face would be to reduce trauma itself. Some sources of childhood trauma are impossible to prevent, such as catastrophic natural disasters. However, other sources of childhood trauma are of human origin, and their eradication should be a priority for everyone. These include the most common sources of major childhood emotional trauma: emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Early treatment of childhood trauma and resulting psychological problems can also help to prevent chronic mental and physical illness in adulthood. Frequently, emotional trauma in children goes unaddressed for a variety of reasons. Parents may not have the resources to provide psychological treatment for their children, the severity of a child’s emotional disruption following a traumatic event may not be recognized, or the very existence of a traumatic experience may not be apparent to the child’s guardians.