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 :
– excessive drinking
– heavy/early-onset smoking
– illicit drug use
– high-risk sexual behaviour (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 – see below
– high blood pressure – see below
– ulcers – see below
– chronic fatigue syndrome – see below
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
– parental psychopathology
– 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 (e.g. by increasing risk-taking behaviour) 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.
Heart Disease, Blood Pressure, Cancer And Ulcers
An interesting study on the link between childhood trauma and physical health was carried out at Harvard University during the 1950s was conducted in order to gain insight into the link (if any) between the quality of individuals’ relationships with their parents and their physical health.
The participants in the study were 126 undergraduates and each was given a simple questionnaire with the aim of collecting information relating to how emotionally close each of these young people felt to their mothers and fathers.
The questionnaire presented three options for describing these relationships – I show these below :
- VERY CLOSE
- STRAINED AND COLD
The study was longitudinal, and the original participants were followed up THIRTY-FIVE YEARS LATER (meaning that they were now all in either their fifties or their sixties) and their MEDICAL RECORDS WERE EXAMINED.
THE RESULTS OF THE STUDY :
- 91% of those individuals who had, thirty-five years earlier, described their relationship with their mother as either TOLERANT or STRAINED AND COLD had been diagnosed with a serious medical condition by midlife; these conditions included HEART DISEASE, HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE and ULCERS.
- In the case of those individuals who had, thirty-five years earlier, described their relationship with BOTH their mother AND father as either TOLERANT or STRAINED AND COLD, this figure climbed to a staggering 100%.
ADDITIONAL FINDINGS :
- Amongst individuals in the study who described their relationship with their mother as ‘warm and friendly’, only 45% had developed a disease by the time they reached their fifties.
- Those who reported feeling loved by their fathers also developed lower rates of disease by the time they reached midlife than those who did not report a positive relationship with their fathers
Another similar, longitudinal study, carried out at John Hopkins University, found that students who reported impoverished emotional relationships with their parents were far more likely to have developed cancer by the time they had reached their forties and fifties than those individuals who had reported more warm and loving relationships with their parents,
The researchers concluded that according to their findings and based upon their (non-random) population samples, the quality of the emotional bond with parents was the single most powerful predictor of the later development of illness and disease, including cancer and heart disease (more powerful, even, than drinking, smoking, parental divorce, death of a parent and exposure to environmental toxins).
THE LINK BETWEEN CHILDHOOD TRAUMA AND CHRONIC FATIGUE SYNDROME :
A study conducted at the University of Toronto has added to the weight of already existing evidence that individuals who have experienced childhood trauma are at greater risk of developing chronic fatigue syndrome (also sometimes referred to as CFS, or, in medical circles, myalgic encephalomyelitis – try saying that after a few drinks!)
Participating in the study were 7000 females, and it was found that those with CFS were TWICE as likely to have experienced childhood trauma than those who were free of the condition. As implied in the first paragraph, other studies have provided similar results.
It is believed that the reason behind the findings is that childhood trauma produces physiological effects upon the developing brain that have an adverse effect upon the individual’s stress response system (click here for one of my articles on the effects of childhood trauma on the developing brain).
Also, because the psychological effects of childhood trauma are also thought to contribute to the elevated risk of developing CFS, doctors may well increasingly turn to treating the condition with psychotherapeutic techniques (also sometimes referred to as ‘talking therapies’).
It is not to be inferred from the above that childhood trauma is the main cause of CFS (or even a necessary contributing factor, for that matter), but, rather, that it is likely to increase a person’s vulnerability to falling victim to the condition.
Following these findings, it has been suggested that a useful way of building upon this research would be to focus future studies specifically upon the precise physiological changes that occur in the brain as a result of childhood trauma and analyse the mechanisms through which such changes put a person at higher risk of developing CFS. Further, it is important to try to discover how physiological changes in the brain that are the result of childhood trauma differ from changes that occur as a result of other types of long-term stress during adulthood.
FACTS ABOUT CFS.
The symptoms of CFS are as follows :
– persistent fatigue/exhaustion which affects everyday life and is not rectified by sleep or rest
– in the UK, the condition is thought to affect approximately a quarter of a million people
– the condition is more prevalent in females than in males
– it normally affects people between about the ages of 20 – 45 years; however, it can begin during childhood – if so, it normally begins between the ages of 13 and 15 years
CFS can be split into 3 different levels of severity :
– MILD: the person can probably care for him/herself, but may require days off in order to rest
– MODERATE: at this level, the individual may well experience reduced mobility, disturbed sleep, as well as a need to sleep in the afternoon
– SEVERE: at this level, the person will have significantly decreased mobility, possible impairments to his/her ability to concentrate as well as greatly reduced ability to perform many everyday tasks
OTHER POSSIBLE CAUSES OF CFS :
As well as childhood trauma, other possible causes include :
– a viral infection
– problems with the immune system
– an imbalance of hormones
– the inheritance of a genetic predisposition
POSSIBLE TREATMENTS FOR CFS INCLUDE :
1) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
2) Graded Exercise Therapy
3) Medication (especially if the CFS includes symptoms such as pain, nausea or sleep disorders)
4) Hypnotherapy – research shows that hypnotherapy can be effective in treating CFS. For example, a study by D. Corydon Hammond, based at the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Utah School of Medicine, showed that individuals with CFS who were treated with hypnotherapy saw improvements in fatigue levels, vigour and levels of concentration.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).