The Science Behind Healing Childhood Trauma

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How does adverse childhood experiences and trauma affect your life as an adult?

How trauma changes our biology, and important steps you can take to heal from trauma?

These are questions we will discuss in our DrTalks blog post below.

Childhood Trauma Overview

Complex life situations cause complex health complications.

Our surroundings, interactions with others, and life experiences shape our bodies and minds. Certain experiences and life episodes cause strain on us. Over time, it might not seem like a lot has happened.

But your body will keep score.

Trauma is a primary culprit that causes our bodies and minds to develop health complications. It is hard to know how to heal from trauma because it affects everyone differently. However, one thing is common between individuals that experience trauma.

One report indicates that in response to trauma, our bodies might experience changes in:
· Limbic system function
· Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity
· Regulation of arousal and endogenous opioid systems

These systems are essential to our functioning. Dysregulation of these can cause us to develop mental or physical health problems. By exploring your past traumas, you can gain insights into the potential changes they may have brought to your biology.

Childhood, a crucial period of life, often harbors significant traumas, big or small, that may have long-lasting impacts.

Adverse Childhood Experiences: How Childhood Trauma Follows You to Adulthood

Experiences in our childhood are linked to our health as an adult. Especially the events known as “Adverse Childhood Experiences”.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or “ACEs”, refer to potentially traumatic events that have occurred between ages 0-17 years. There are many forms of ACEs, and some examples include:
· Physical Abuse
· Sexual Abuse
· Emotional Abuse
· Physical or Emotional Neglect
· Witnessing parents perform domestic violence, substance abuse, or have severe mental illness

One finding indicates that more than 60% of adults experienced at least 1 ACE and 17% had 4 or more ACEs.

During ages 0-17 years, our minds and bodies are integrating information from the world around us. Experiencing any form of extreme stress due to ACEs can have significant impacts on our adulthood health.

The CDC reports that ACEs may contribute to up to:
· 21 million cases of depression
· 1.9 million cases of heart disease
· 2.5 million cases of weight management complications

One review indicated that the age when ACEs are experienced and the type of ACEs experienced cause different outcomes.

A 2016 study revealed that trauma exposure between the ages 13-14 years increases the risk of dissociative disorders. While another study found that ACEs occurring between 3-5 years of age were associated with higher risk of PTSD, anxiety, and depression. ACEs that occurred after the age of 5 were linked more closely with behavioral issues like bipolar disorder or substance abuse.

Overall, experiencing any ACE dramatically increases the likelihood of developing mental health conditions.

Furthermore, ACEs are linked to a higher risk of developing physical health conditions. One study reports that ACEs can increase the risk of chronic physical health conditions by up to 81%.

It is clear to see that your childhood will follow you as you age. Although you may not be able to change your childhood, understanding how you were impacted by it could change your future health.

Changes to the Stress Response System due to Trauma

After experiencing ACEs, our stress response systems change, specifically the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis.

This review indicated that the release of cortisol, a key stress hormone released by the HPA axis, is dysregulated in adulthood. This can lead to the dysregulation of stress responses.

Further, one study indicated that individuals experiencing ACEs are three to eight times more likely to experience psychological stress over a six month period.

The dysregulation of the stress response system can make it difficult to regulate yourself in situations or to respond in the way that you want to.

Changes to the Immune System due to Trauma

Individuals that experienced ACEs are more likely to have immune system dysregulation, according to a study and a review.

One review reported that individuals that experienced trauma have increased levels of inflammation markers. This means that the immune system is overburdened. Also, these individuals are more likely to experience inflammaging.

Because of the increased levels of chronic inflammation, individuals that experienced ACEs could have a greater risk for developing chronic diseases like:
· Multiple Sclerosis
· Cancer
· Heart Disease
· Fibromyalgia

Changes to the Brain due to Trauma

Brain and Trauma

The brain is also highly prone to changes due to ACEs.

A review reports that the development of your neurons changes due to ACEs. This could lead to poor neuron signaling and lead to impairments of:
· Memory
· Emotional Processing
· Visual Information Processing

These can cause issues with your responses to specific situations.

Importantly, certain areas of your brain are also changed due to ACEs.

Your hippocampus, a key brain area for learning and memory, was found to have less volume if you experienced ACEs. This has been found to increase the risk of psychological conditions.

The amygdala, a key regulator of responses to fear and stress, may also have less volume in response to ACEs. However, there are inconsistencies in reports, according to one review.

If the amygdala has reduced volume, you may have heightened responses to stress or fearful situations.

It may seem like there is an endless list of risks and effects of ACEs. There is hope because it is possible to heal from the trauma you may have experienced as a child.

It takes a lot of effort, be sure to discuss your healing needs with your doctor so you can find resources for your healing journey.

About the Author – Daniel Chantigian

Dive into the world of chronic diseases and other health conditions with writings by Daniel Chantigian, MS. Discover groundbreaking research and enlightening disease summaries through his works on our blog:

Childhood Trauma References:

· Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from: Read it here.

· Monnat, S. M., & Chandler, R. F. (2015). Long Term Physical Health Consequences of Adverse Childhood Experiences. The Sociological quarterly, 56(4), 723–752. Read it here.

· Hustedde C. (2021). Adverse Childhood Experiences. Primary care, 48(3), 493–504. Read it here.

· Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 Aug. 2021. Read it here.

· Herzog, J. I., & Schmahl, C. (2018). Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Consequences on Neurobiological, Psychosocial, and Somatic Conditions Across the Lifespan. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 420. Read it here.

· Schalinski, I., Teicher, M. H., Nischk, D., Hinderer, E., Müller, O., & Rockstroh, B. (2016). Type and timing of adverse childhood experiences differentially affect severity of PTSD, dissociative and depressive symptoms in adult inpatients. BMC psychiatry, 16, 295. Read it here.

· Kaplow, J. B., & Widom, C. S. (2007). Age of onset of child maltreatment predicts long-term mental health outcomes. Journal of abnormal psychology, 116(1), 176–187. Read it here.

· Al-Shawi, A. F., & Lafta, R. K. (2015). Effect of adverse childhood experiences on physical health in adulthood: Results of a study conducted in Baghdad city. Journal of family & community medicine, 22(2), 78–84. Read it here.

· Hakamata, Y., Suzuki, Y., Kobashikawa, H., & Hori, H. (2022). Neurobiology of early life adversity: A systematic review of meta-analyses towards an integrative account of its neurobiological trajectories to mental disorders. Frontiers in neuroendocrinology, 65, 100994. Read it here.

· Manyema, M., Norris, S. A., & Richter, L. M. (2018). Stress begets stress: the association of adverse childhood experiences with psychological distress in the presence of adult life stress. BMC public health, 18(1), 835. Read it here.

· John-Henderson, N. A., Henderson-Matthews, B., Ollinger, S. R., Racine, J., Gordon, M. R., Higgins, A. A., Horn, W. C., Reevis, S. A., Running Wolf, J. A., Grant, D., & Rynda-Apple, A. (2020). Adverse Childhood Experiences and Immune System Inflammation in Adults Residing on the Blackfeet Reservation: The Moderating Role of Sense of Belonging to the Community. Annals of behavioral medicine: a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 54(2), 87–93. Read it here.

· Gilbertson, M. W., Shenton, M. E., Ciszewski, A., Kasai, K., Lasko, N. B., Orr, S. P., & Pitman, R. K. (2002). Smaller hippocampal volume predicts pathologic vulnerability to psychological trauma. Nature neuroscience, 5(11), 1242–1247. Read it here.

· Watkins, L. E., Sprang, K. R., & Rothbaum, B. O. (2018). Treating PTSD: A Review of Evidence-Based Psychotherapy Interventions. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 12, 258. Read it here.

· Stige, S. H., Binder, P. E., Rosenvinge, J. H., & Træen, B. (2013). Stories from the road of recovery – How adult, female survivors of childhood trauma experience ways to positive change. Nordic psychology, 65(1), 3–18. Read it here.

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Daniel Chantigian
Daniel Chantigian, MS
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When it comes to complex scientific or medical topics, Daniel can successfully communicate with any audience via writing, social media, lecturing, and one-on-one discussions. Over the past decade, he developed these skills as a researcher at the University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic, as a lecturer at the University...

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