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Formerly St. Louis Center for Family Development
Childhood Trauma and Chronic Illness

Navigating the Impacts of Childhood Trauma into Adulthood: Part II

This is the second installment in a two-part blog series examining the impacts of childhood trauma. To access Part I in this blog series, click here.


Trauma is not just an emotional experience, and includes physical changes to our functioning. Because of this, the life expectancy of childhood trauma survivors can be nearly 20 years shorter than that of their peers if they are lacking in healthy relationships, quality sleep, adequate nutrition, regular exercise or access to trauma therapy.

The original study on Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, was developed by a team of physicians that had identified health problems in adults who were exposed to trauma as children. In turn, experts sought to understand the science behind the health consequences of unmitigated trauma, which can range from PSTD and memory loss to chronic illness, among other conditions.

The therapies used in Trauma Treatment can help decrease or minimize the impact of past trauma, as well as providing strategies to effectively communicate and manage emotions related to chronic health issues. For survivors of childhood trauma, healing is possible.

The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Stress Response

The ACE Study’s results seemed to indicate that it was not uncommon for an individual to experience some type of adversity during childhood. However, the consequences for those with a “high” score were troubling, and many serious implications could be identified at a score of 4.

When compared to an individual with a zero score, those with a score of 4 were:

  • 460 percent more likely to be depressed.
  • 390 percent more likely to have chronic pulmonary lung disease.
  • 12 times more likely to have attempted suicide.
  • Twice as likely to have heart disease or be diagnosed with cancer.

Neuroscientists and pediatricians worked to identify any physical manifestations of trauma that could help explain the behavior of childhood trauma survivors. This included extensive research on environmental stressors, and how the different types of stress impact the human body.

What they ultimately found was that, while some stressors can be positive or motivational, and help a child learn to develop healthy response mechanisms, prolonged exposure to unrelenting stress can change their brain’s architecture. This led to the coining of the term “toxic stress.”

Toxic stress originated at the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, and is a term used to distinguish between the body’s three types of responses to stress:

  • Positive stress response: Brief increases in heart rate and stress hormone levels. Normal and essential for the development of healthy response mechanisms.
  • Tolerable stress response: Activates the body’s alert systems to difficulties that are more severe or long-lasting than positive stressors.
  • Toxic stress response: Prolonged activation of the body’s alert systems without intervention from a loving, supportive adult, which can disrupt brain development and other organ systems.

Using these guidelines, situations that could trigger positive stress response in a child may include the first day of school nerves or struggling to find a lost toy. Examples of tolerable stress response could be triggered by the loss of a beloved family pet or riding in the car with an adult who is involved in a car accident. Toxic stress response occurs when ACEs are frequent or prolonged, without adequate support from a loving adult or caregiver.

Toxic Stress Response in the Human Body

Renowned pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris likens the impact of toxic stress to a prolonged “fight or flight” mechanism:

“If you’re in a forest and see a bear, a very efficient fight or flight system instantly floods your body with adrenaline and cortisol and shuts off the thinking portion of your brain that would stop to consider other options. This is very helpful if you’re in a forest and you need to run from a bear. The problem is when that bear comes home […] every night.”

The prefrontal cortex is the front part of the brain – the portion that is responsible for planning complex behavior, decision-making, and personality expression. Toxic stress response, such as what’s experienced by someone who is constantly running from a bear, results in a complex sort of “rewiring” of the brain where instinct and emotion begin to override (and even decrease blood flow to) the prefrontal lobes. As an adult, this can decrease an individual’s ability to recall memories, and create increased, intense feelings of sorrow and anger. It can interfere with problem-solving and judgment, and result in increased reactivity.

Trauma affects the brain in several other complex ways that have been observed in individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is no surprise, then, that several common causes for PTSD, such as physical abuse and exposure to violence, are events recognized in the original ACE questionnaire.

Trauma Avoidance and Numbing Activities

When an individual suffers from unrelenting toxic stress without the support of a loving adult or therapist, it is normal for the person to seek ways to manage their pain. Sometimes these are coping mechanisms that are perceived as “healthy,” such as dieting or exercising. Healthy activities can become problematic when taken to extremes, and can turn into unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as over-exercising, binge eating, hyper-sexuality and alcohol or substance abuse.

These activities may provide a sort of temporary “escape” from trauma that is experienced on a regular basis, or provide a sense of comfort that is desperately lacking. However, engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms can create additional health risks ranging from addiction, STDs and obesity to unplanned pregnancy and premature death. For trauma survivors who are already at-risk of developing chronic illness due to the changes in their body’s development, these additional risks are of particular concern.

Therapies to Promote Healing from Trauma

Trauma Treatment with a licensed trauma therapist can help individuals of any age begin the journey to healing from their past. The therapies used in Trauma Treatment can include, but are not limited to, the below:

  • Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE) – Confronting fears by gradually approaching memories or feelings of trauma.
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) – Enhancing family communication by learning new skills to help process thoughts and emotions related to past trauma.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – Finding alternative ways to develop awareness of and deal effectively with intense emotions.
  • Acceptance and Change Strategies – Learning to find a balance between accepting conditions as they are and adopting new strategies to reduce harmful experiences. 

A therapist will work with an individual to determine the best course of treatment for the specific symptoms and past trauma they are struggling with, in order to accomplish their goals. This may involve a combination of therapies over a period of time.

Begin the Journey to Holistic Healing with Sparlin Mental Health

Sparlin Mental Health offers supportive services for trauma survivors, including parents and their children. Our team of licensed trauma therapists can help you confront your fears, and learn new skills to manage memories or feelings of past trauma.

Adverse experiences are not uncommon. Organizations who adopt a Trauma-Informed approach to their services are able to provide a safe environment for clients, improve their outcomes and destigmatize the experience of trauma, among other benefits. Learn more about Sparlin’s Trauma-Informed Training and consultation services to begin the culture shift in your workplace.

Sparlin is here to help you, without judgment or reservation. Click here to contact us today.

To access Part I in this blog series, click here.  

Please Note: This website is not an emergency hotline. If you or someone you know are in crisis, please call the Behavioral Health Response Crisis Hotline at (800) 811-4760.