Can Trauma and Childhood Trauma Cause Chronic Illness?

It is a well-known observation that over a lifetime, most of us will experience at least one traumatic event that can change the trajectory of our lives and the way our brain interprets information, according to a NIH National Library of Medicine article (2011). It is “that thing” that happens to us that is so stressful, makes us so fearful, and is so painful and distressing that it leaves us not knowing how to cope. It can be so complex that some people disassociate from it and lose memory of it happening all together. Oddly enough, we can still exhibit symptoms that are indicative of a history of that trauma. Any trauma(s) across the lifespan can, in fact, lead to chronic illness, but childhood traumas in particular tend to produce chronic mental and medical health issues.

What is a traumatic event?

Traumatic events, especially those that happen in early childhood, can come in many forms. Physical and sexual abuse are widely recognized as traumatic events, and long-term exposure to such traumas, like those encountered by sex-trafficking survivors, can result in what is known as Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Those who have been in military combat, witnessed violence, or survived a disaster are also commonly recognized as people who have experienced traumatic events. Other traumatic events can include the sudden death of a family member or someone you are very close to, prolonged hospitalization (especially in early childhood), family instability, homelessness, and many more. These complex trauma histories require considerable resources and therapy to cope with, overcome, and find recovery from. Just like the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child,” so too does it take exceptional support to help the survivor cope, reclaim hope, and, ultimately, experience Post-Traumatic Growth.

Such traumatic events as those listed above have been linked to chronic illnesses, often stemming from poor immune function and poor cardiovascular health according to NIH, National Library of Medicine (2011). Let’s look over a list of possible chronic illnesses that can be due to trauma, and especially childhood trauma.

  1. Autoimmune diseases such as Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Type 1 Diabetes, Graves Disease, Hashimoto’s Disease, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and more.
  2. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  3. Insomnia
  4. Frequent Headaches/Migraines
  5. Anxiety/Depression
  6. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and/or Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  7. Cardiovascular Disease, including stroke
  8. Lung Disease
  9. Certain types of Cancer
  10. Kidney Disease
  11. Visceral Hypersensitivity

Visceral Hypersensitivity & Visceral Pain

Let’s take a look at Visceral Hypersensitivity, also known as VH, for a moment. According to the 2022 Cleveland Clinic document, visceral pain is pain or discomfort radiating from your visceral organs. These organs include the soft tissue organs such as the heart, the lungs, the organs of digestion, the reproductive organs, and parts of the circulatory system. In the Cleveland Clinic article, they speculate that the:

“…neurological response to pain may become overly sensitized by either severe or repeated exposure to physical, mental and/or emotional stress.”

What can cause visceral pain? Visceral pain can be caused by several factors, including genetics, psychological disorders, social stress factors, and early life trauma. In early childhood, the brain is still developing circuitry that regulates stress and pain perception. Early childhood trauma can, and often does, change the trajectory of this circuit development, especially if there is already a genetic predisposition towards hypersensitivity. Mental or emotional trauma, significant illnesses, infection, or childhood injury are all influencing factors that can lead to this sensitivity to pain. Visceral pain can also produce strong autonomic responses from your body that include:

  • pallor (unhealthy pale appearance)
  • excess sweating
  • changes in body temperature (effects the hypothalamus gland in your brain)
  • changes in blood pressure
  • changes in heart rate
  • whole body motor response sometimes in the form of myoclonus, which is a brief involuntary muscle jerk (also known as the exaggerated startle response)

How Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Impacts People

Two major factors that have a strong correlation to the increased likelihood of chronic illness include mental health struggles and stressful socioeconomic situations. Social and historical factors that shape our development early on from childhood, including being disadvantaged and undergoing negative experiences, link to a stream of accumulating complications.

“Cumulative adversity” as demonstrated by a consensus of scientific research, is the root cause of some of the most harmful, persistent, and expensive health challenges facing our nation. These have been classified as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

Three of these ACEs are: abuse, neglect, and household challenges. ACEs cause severe toxic stress. Severe and prolonged toxic stress has a damaging impact on the body and mind, and they are detectable even as early as infancy according to Center to Advance Trauma Informed Health Care, University of California San Francisco 2018. Research has found that many preventable diseases and illnesses are due to having 4 or more ACEs, diseases like stroke, cancer, heart disease, addiction, COPD, major depression disorder, and ALS. According to the 2018 UCSF article and a 2019 CDC article, preventing ACEs could potentially reduce a vast array of health conditions.

How can we help reduce the impact of toxic stress on chronic illness? The answer: Trauma Informed Health Care

One of the best ways to begin trauma informed health care is for primary doctors to ask questions during assessments about safety concerns and life circumstances. Physicians are starting to receive training on the signs and symptoms of trauma exposure as they relate to physical and mental well-being. Armed with the correct knowledge, physicians will make referrals to other clinicians that would be better suited to meet the needs of the client. Talking about it with someone is step one! Psychiatrists, Psychologists, and therapists are the “go-to” sources for trauma-informed therapies such as Cognitive Processing Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which are forms of behavioral and cognitive therapy designed to treat PTSD. It consists of a repeated, structured retelling of the event(s) to gain a new understanding and find the strength to face things that have previously triggered the individual’s traumatic memories. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is another form of therapy that relies on adaptive information processing. It changes the way memory is stored in the brain and reduces negative triggering reactions.

Trauma therapy helps integrate soothing the nervous system through client self-awareness, and understanding how the influence of the past can have an impact on present behavior. It supports both mind and body healing. There are many different options for therapy that will increase post traumatic growth and allow individuals that have experienced trauma to lead lives that are fulfilling and prosperous devoid of chronic illness or at best, decreasing the effects. Ranch Hands Rescue has wonderful counselors and therapists on staff that are specialized in many of these particular kinds of therapy to aid in helping heal trauma and prevent chronic illness.

Article written by Callie Nisbet RN-BSN, Freelance Nurse Writer, Certified Mental Health Advocate

References:  (2011)  (3/11/2022)  (2019) (2015, updated 2018)