It’s a well-known fact that childhood trauma can significantly affect your mental health and increase your risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders. But did you know that trauma has also been linked with higher chances of physical health issues?
In this article, you will learn about childhood trauma, its possible effects on your physical health, and steps you can take to heal.
Table of Contents
What is Childhood Trauma?
Childhood trauma refers to frightening, distressing, or life-threatening events or experiences that happen during your childhood years. It is also called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
Below are situations that can lead to childhood trauma:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Domestic violence
- Loss of a loved one
- Natural disasters
- Medical incidents
These events can cause emotional and behavioral issues in children, and can also develop into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Moreover, childhood trauma can negatively impact the mental health, relationships, and even the physical health of those affected.
Childhood trauma can be resolved with time or with the help of treatment, but it can also cause long-lasting harm or negative effects that can persist into adulthood. Signs of childhood trauma in adults include:
- Low self-esteem
- Substance abuse
- Emotional instability
- Issues with focus and attention
- Difficulty with social interaction
- Unhealthy relationships
Physical Health Impacts of Childhood Trauma
Aside from the mental, emotional, and social impacts of trauma, it can also cause negative effects on your physical health:
Chronic pain is pain that occurs with other chronic health conditions or lasts beyond the typical duration of healing after an injury or illness. It may occur every once in a while or happen continuously.
Chronic pain may be caused by certain diseases, such as arthritis, cancer, or stomach ulcers. But it can also happen if you have poor posture, experienced a traumatic injury, or are overweight.
A 2023 study conducted a survey of people with chronic pain. It was found that childhood trauma, especially emotional abuse, is a good predictor of pain catastrophizing. Pain catastrophizing involves exaggerated negative thoughts and emotions about pain. It is also associated with persistent pain.
These findings suggest that childhood trauma might be causing pain catastrophizing, which can contribute to chronic pain.
Obesity is a health condition that is characterized by an excessive accumulation of body fat. It is linked with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, and high blood pressure. Obesity is commonly caused by having a diet too high in calories.
Genetics, certain diseases, and medications are also risk factors for obesity. Aside from these, childhood trauma may also be a predictor of obesity in adulthood.
A 2022 study found that there is a link between childhood trauma and developing overweight and obesity during early adulthood. The researchers suggest that this might be partially because food addiction is being used as an unhealthy coping mechanism for trauma.
Insulin resistance is a health condition in which the body’s cells don’t respond effectively to the hormone insulin. Insulin is produced by the pancreas and helps regulate blood sugar levels in the body.
Excess body fat, physical inactivity, and certain medications are factors that can cause insulin resistance. Additionally, a diet consisting of saturated fats, high carbohydrate foods, and highly processed foods is also another risk factor.
A 2019 study investigated the relationship between food addiction, insulin resistance, and childhood trauma. They studied women with type 2 diabetes and obesity.
The women with food addiction had higher levels of insulin resistance. They also reported more severe childhood trauma compared to participants without food addiction. Moreover, the researchers found that food addiction played a mediating role between childhood trauma and insulin resistance.
Cardiovascular diseases are health conditions that affect the heart and blood vessels. They include coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, and peripheral arterial disease. Common risk factors for cardiovascular disease are unhealthy diet, tobacco use, alcohol use, and physical inactivity.
A 2020 study looked at how challenging experiences during childhood could be linked to heart disease in middle age. Results showed that participants who had a more adverse childhood family environment had higher chances of experiencing a cardiovascular disease event (heart attack or stroke).
This might be because people who had a challenging childhood are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as excessive smoking, which is associated with cardiovascular disease.
A stroke occurs when the blood supply in your brain artery is blocked by a blood clot (ischemic stroke) or a blood vessel bursts in your brain (hemorrhagic stroke). Risk factors for stroke include being overweight or obese, heavy drinking, cigarette smoking, drug abuse, and physical inactivity. Underlying medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and family history of stroke are also factors.
A 2017 study investigated the link between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), risky behaviors, and health problems in adulthood. Participants who had a higher ACE score (which indicates more ACEs), were more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as heavy drinking, binge drinking, smoking, or risky sexual behavior.
Moreover, these participants had an increased risk for heart problems (including coronary heart disease, myocardial infarction, and stroke), diabetes, depression, and disability.
Cancer is a group of diseases involving uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells in the body. These cells can form a lump of tissue called a tumor. Cancerous tumors can spread to other tissues and parts of the body.
Cancer is genetic, which means that it’s caused by certain changes in the body’s genes. Risk factors for cancer include tobacco use, heavy drinking, unhealthy diet, and lack of physical activity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ACEs are associated with an increased risk for cancer later in life. This is because ACEs can lead to toxic stress, which can change the way the brain operates, therefore affecting mood, actions, decisions, and self-control.
Additionally, toxic stress in children is linked with risky behaviors such as heavy drinking and tobacco use, which can increase cancer risk. The stress caused by ACEs can also cause long-lasting inflammation in the body, which can also lead to higher risk.
Ways to Heal from Childhood Trauma as an Adult
Childhood trauma can lead to mental health issues, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and long-term physical health consequences. For these reasons, it is important to work through your trauma as an adult. Here are some strategies you can try:
Tip #1: Acknowledge your trauma
The first step to healing is to acknowledge your childhood trauma. You need to recognize that your pain and suffering were valid responses to what you went through. Keeping these feelings bottled up can lead to distress while expressing them can allow a healthy emotional release.
Additionally, confronting your childhood trauma will help you understand how it had an impact on your life and shaped your thought patterns, behaviors, and relationships. This can help you understand where you can make positive changes in your life.
To do this, you need to take time to reflect on your past experiences, thoughts, and emotions. You can start journaling so you can express your pent-up emotions. It can also help you process your trauma and help you make sense of it.
Take time to also learn about your childhood trauma by reading books, articles, and online resources.
Tip #2: Practice self-care and self-compassion
Healing from your childhood trauma can be stressful, so you need to engage in self-care activities to reduce your stress levels. Having self-compassion can also help you accept your imperfections and vulnerabilities without resorting to harsh self-criticism.
Moreover, instead of resorting to risky and destructive behaviors that can put you at risk for health problems, you will learn to use healthy coping mechanisms. Remember to be patient with yourself on your healing journey.
You can start taking care of yourself by nourishing your body with healthy foods and prioritizing your sleep quality. Other self-care activities include:
- Taking a warm bath
- Enjoying a cup of tea
- Spending time with friends
- Spending time in nature
- Physical activity such as yoga, swimming, or dancing
- Mindfulness meditation
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can also do deep breathing exercises. Inhale deeply through your nose, then hold for a few seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat until you’re calm and relaxed.
Tip #3: Seek professional help
Seeking help for childhood trauma can help you heal properly. You can talk to a mental health professional who is trained and experienced in trauma treatment. They can help you change your faulty thinking patterns, educate you about healthy coping strategies, and support you in your recovery journey.
Below are common types of therapy for childhood trauma:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This type of therapy will help you understand the link between your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. It can help you reduce negative emotions and behaviors that occur due to your trauma.
- Psychodynamic therapy. This approach can help you recognize how your childhood trauma impacted you and your relationships.
- Narrative exposure therapy (NET). A therapist will help you to reflect on your life by working with you to build a life narrative that can help you understand your trauma.
In addition to therapy, you might also benefit from seeking support from your trusted family and friends. You can share your feelings and needs with them, so they can understand how to support you. There are also support groups that focus on trauma recovery, where you can learn and share experiences.
Childhood trauma does not only affect your mental state but can also lead to physical health problems.
Today, start taking steps to heal your childhood trauma. It might be a challenging journey but know that you’re not alone and that you deserve a life that is free from the burdens of your past.