Research has shown lasting effects from childhood trauma, including substance use, mood disorders and risky…
Childhood Trauma: How Your Past Harms Your Present
Those with a history of childhood trauma — things such as sexual, physical and emotional abuse, neglect and early separation from caregivers — don’t need to be told that it leaves marks. But just how far-reaching those effects can be is becoming increasingly clear, thanks to a growing body of research.
Among some of the discoveries:
- A 2015 King’s College London study found that childhood trauma can cause long-term changes in the body’s immune function, making the person more vulnerable to a variety of ailments as they age. These can include chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, lung disease, arthritis and cancer, as well as mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and psychosis.
- Childhood trauma and childhood abuse have been linked to an increased risk of addiction, as the person turns to drugs or alcohol to try to self-medicate away painful feelings or, in some cases, to feel something. An estimated two-thirds of those who get treatment for substance use disorders, in fact, report childhood histories of emotional, sexual or physical abuse, research Childhood trauma has been linked to food addiction as well, especially in women.
- A 2016 University of Michigan study found a link between childhood trauma and problems making those quick “go or don’t go” decisions that are part of everyday life and so crucial in emergencies. And when decisions are made, they tend to be more impulsive and less accurate. Though the study’s researchers had initially looked to see if those with bipolar disorder had problems with impulse control, they found instead that a troubled childhood was actually the common thread.
To those with trauma in their past, findings such as these come together to form a deeply discouraging picture. But it’s not all bad news: Each discovery of the mechanisms behind trauma helps us refine strategies to deal with it and takes us closer to developing new treatments. The more we know, in short, the more we know about how to overcome it.
The King’s College researchers, for example, hope their research will help lead to the creation of tailored medications that can decrease the trauma-induced inflammation that appears linked to illness. And all of the studies point out an important reality: Treatments are currently available that can be highly effective, and the sooner childhood trauma is addressed, the less power it has to continue harming us.
There’s no single answer for how to overcome a troubled past. Trauma affects each person differently and to different degrees, and each will respond differently to treatment. But among the many effective approaches now being used are:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This form of psychotherapy helps the person explore their thinking and recognize self-destructive patterns such as over-generalizing, catastrophizing (assuming the worst) and minimizing the good and obsessing about the bad. For some, the result is a dramatic change in emotional state and quality of life.
- Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): It’s similar to CBT but focuses on helping the person understand that while their emotions are valid, these feelings may have led them to create counter-productive coping mechanisms, and healthier responses can be developed.
- Somatic Experiencing: This therapeutic technique is based on the premise that trauma that is “un-discharged” can cause a person to be either stuck in a state of anxiety and hypervigilance or in fatigue and disconnection. With Somatic Experiencing, the person works through the trauma but does not need to relive it or even share details of it with the clinician. To those disturbed by the thought of revisiting the past, this is an important plus.
- Neurofeedback: With this technique, the person essentially learns how to exert control over certain brainwaves, which can help with a variety of issues, including disordered thinking, anxiety and depression. It’s a noninvasive procedure in which the patient is hooked up to electrodes that allow them to monitor their brain activity and learn to influence it in positive ways.
- Medication can also help deal with the issues that grow from trauma, such as depression and anxiety.
Sometimes these treatments are used solo and sometimes in combination, but they represent just a few of the items on a broad and constantly growing menu of options for those working to put the past in the past.
A Silver Lining
Along with the multiple studies highlighting the negative effects of childhood trauma, there is also research that offers encouragement. A 2011 study published in an Association for Psychological Science (APS) journal noted that the old adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may be true, in a certain sense. People who go through tough times have a chance to develop the ability to cope, unlike those who have never known distress, the study revealed. In the long run, that can make the person more resilient.
That’s not to say trauma should be in any way sought out or minimized. “Negative events have negative effects,” said Mark D. Seery of the University of Buffalo, author of the research, in an interview with the APS. “I really look at this as being a silver lining. Just because something bad has happened to someone doesn’t mean they’re doomed to be damaged from that point on.”