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The Persistence of Childhood Trauma and Impact on Physical Health

Children take everything we do exceedingly sternly, not only do they look up to us but also imitate our actions. As all of us are aware, children are extremely sensitive to their surroundings and as adults, we must ensure that a child must not be in jeopardy. Although, at times, under circumstances, sometimes harm is caused to a child, either within the house or elsewhere. Since younger children are often dependent on their parents or guardians for protection, they are often extremely vulnerable and susceptible to trauma.

Trauma in a child can be twice as impactful in a child since it affects their overall development. Not only this but it also harms a child’s attachment styles which makes them very suspicious of the people around them. The National Institute of Mental Health defines childhood trauma as “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects”.

A child undergoes trauma when observing or experiencing events like domestic or sexual assault, bullying, medical procedures, loss of a loved one, life-threatening diseases or accidents, war etc. Childhood trauma can be tormenting as it interrupts one's daily activities. Trauma also affects our brains. It changes the way we think, feel or do things resulting in being in survival mode. Precisely, it affects three parts of our brain;

The Hippocampus controls our memory, not only does the hippocampus have a lesser functioning, but studies (Dr. Todd Thatcher et al.), have also revealed that trauma changes the structure of the hippocampus. Research has revealed that people with trauma or PTSD have a comparatively smaller hippocampus than people who haven’t undergone traumatic events.

The Prefrontal Cortex manages our emotions and impulses. Individuals with PTSD have a decline in functioning and activation when facing trauma.

The Amygdala controls our emotions, fear reactions. It becomes more operative when an individual is diagnosed with PTSD. Studies show that the amygdala of an individual with PTSD has an amplified function in retaliation to the stimuli that remind them of their trauma or the traumatic event.

Trauma can be further divided into four types

  1. Acute Trauma- Acute Trauma is due to one single traumatic event.

  2. Chronic Trauma- Chronic trauma is more intense than acute trauma. It occurs due to being exposed to the traumatic stressor for a long period..

  3. Complex Trauma- This type of trauma is because of being exposed to multiple traumatic events.

  4. Secondary trauma/ vicarious trauma- Secondary trauma is not known to many individuals. This type of trauma occurs when an individual develops trauma signs after being around someone who has undergone a traumatic event.

Additionally, something that is not quite spoken about is the persistence of childhood trauma as adults. If not treated properly, adults could carry this heavy burden on their shoulders as the year’s progress. Not only does it lead to severe mental health issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse but also affects our physical health which is rarely ever acknowledged. Research(Dr. Todd Thatcher et al) shows that childhood trauma is linked to chronic health problems. Trauma can show up in the body as obesity, heart conditions, strokes, diabetes etc. However, one thing that often goes unnoticed is that trauma can be caused by our relationships as well.

Trauma and our Bodies

When we are faced with certain stimuli that make us feel anxious or under threat, our bodies release certain chemicals which are cortisol and adrenaline. This is our body’s natural reaction and cannot be controlled by us.

Flight- As the name suggests, The Flight response is the need to run away or escape from a situation, deny emotional burden or other types of distress or symbolically it translates to going into hyperactivity.

Fight- The Fight response is the need to aggressively take over a situation. Often, people with this trauma response believe that being controlling or fighting a threat with aggression will make them regain the power that they believed they lacked in their past or their childhood.

Freeze- Individuals with this trauma response often don't know how to respond when faced with dangerous stimuli, they become numb and freeze, unable to make further decisions.

Fawn- The Fawn response is when individuals try to appease or placate the threat, to postpone danger.

Individuals who have undergone trauma develop certain coping mechanisms which may seem like an escape but have prolonged effects on their physical well being. These coping mechanisms can also be categorised as health risk behaviours.

Some of these coping mechanisms are relying on food to make themselves feel better, consuming excessive amounts of tobacco or indulging in hard drugs. In the future, these coping mechanisms lead to various health issues like cancer, diabetes, hypertension, heart diseases and substance abuse disorders. Adding to that, There are three common coping strategies-

Appraisal Focused Strategies- Appraisal Focused Strategies change the thought procedures that are associated with the trauma. In this strategy, people alter the way they feel about the problem by thinking about it differently.

Problem Focused Strategies- The objective of Problem Focused Strategies is to alter the cause of the problem. Individuals try to alter or change the cause or the stressor by learning certain skills to solve the problem.

Emotion-Focused Strategy- As the term suggests, Emotion-Focused Strategy deals with the emotions or feelings attached to the problem or the stressor.

Trauma, whether severe or not, must not be ignored because it has extreme effects on not only our psychological well being but also our physiological health. Trauma requires intervention as soon as possible otherwise, trauma can show in the body in worse ways in the body or the mind.

Undergoing a traumatic event is terrifying in ways we cannot fathom. One may not completely get over but some efficacious ways may help an individual cope up with their trauma, healthily, according to various professionals. Understand that you have undergone something traumatic and it is okay for you to react to it.

Do not isolate yourself. After undergoing trauma, it may seem it’s easier to isolate yourself and that no one comprehends your feelings. However, isolation will just add to your suppressed emotions. Confiding with loved ones about your feelings. Talking to the people you love and trust makes the process of healing feel easier.

Joining support groups is a great way to remind yourself that you are not alone and many people have experienced similar events as well. Trauma is much more than just daily reminders of the event. It completely changes how an individual perceives things.

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