A vast amount of research has been carried out on the potentially devastating psychological impact of childhood trauma upon the individual. Far less, however, has been conducted on such trauma’s effect on physical health (or, as it’s also termed, psychobiological effects). Indeed, it is only in the last decade that studies into physical health effects of early trauma have become more frequent. In this article, which serves as an introduction to the topic, I will review some of the main findings of research thus far.
The data collected so far shows that childhood trauma is related to poorer physical health in later life (ie compared to those who did not suffer significant early trauma). It is certainly worth noting, too, that this adverse effect on physical health of childhood trauma is DOUBLED if there continues to be significant stress in later life.
An important point to make is that childhood trauma can adversely impact upon the later physical health of the person in two different ways :
It is theorized that DIRECT effects include the harmful effect childhood trauma can have on brain development which then lowers the individual’s ability to cope with stress and also lowers his/her immune functioning.
INDIRECT effects result from behaviours which might manifest themselves in response to childhood trauma; these include :
– high risk sexual behavior (unprotected/multiple partners)
– decreased physical activity
– compulsive eating/severe obesity (Felitti et al, 1998).
WHICH PHYSICAL HEALTH PROBLEMS HAS CHILDHOOD TRAUMA BEEN LINKED TO ?
The list is, sadly, extensive. So far, studies indicate the following physical problems occur significantly more frequently in those who have suffered childhood trauma :
– gastrointestinal problems
– irritable bowel syndrome
– breast cancer (Golding, 1994, 1999)
– thyroid disease (Stein and Barrett-Connor, 2000)
– bladder problems
– heart problems (Dong et al, 2004)
THE ROLE OF FAMILY CHARACTERISTICS :
Family characteristics, linked to childhood trauma, may also contribute to poor health outcomes for those who grew up in such families. These family characteristics include :
– parental abandonment
– family conflict
– low socioeconomic status
– parental loss or absence
– parental divorce
Research into the relationship between family characteristics like those described above is ongoing in order to distinguish the influence of such factors from co-occurring childhood adversities.
THE ROLE OF PSYCHIATRIC FACTORS :
Because those who suffer childhood trauma are at significantly greater risk of developing psychiatric disorders. these too (eg by increasing risk taking behavior) will often have a marked knock on effect in relation to the person’s physical health. In particular, insomnia leading to sleep deprivation is an area of interest for more research into this. Also, of course, the side-effects of potent psychiatric drugs need to be further examined.
Finally, it should be pointed out that different types of childhood trauma are likely to lead to different adverse physical effects, which in turn means different treatment approaches need to be considered.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).