Trauma and Physical Health

trauma physical health

The psychological effects of trauma have been thoroughly studied for quite some time – it has long-since been understood that the experiences we undergo (both positive and negative) will shape the way we think and feel. At Next Chapter, we focus on addiction through the lens of trauma – meaning that we pay careful attention to the way that traumatic experience impacts and shapes the development of substance abuse and other addictive disorders. While we concentrate on the psychological impact of past trauma, it is important to note that the consequences of unresolved traumatic experience range greatly. Treating the very core of the issue does not only work to relieve mental and emotional symptoms, but, in many cases, physical symptoms will concurrently be resolved. Yes, trauma impacts physical health – to a very significant degree.

For well over a decade, researchers have closely examined how undergoing traumatic events impacts the physical body. It has been found that many survivors of trauma experience physical symptoms that persist for long after the event has occurred. Many of these symptoms are far beyond the effects of direct physical injury, and they may in fact prompt the sufferer to reach towards chemical substance in attempts to self-medicate, resulting in addictive disorders down the line. We understand that many addicts and alcoholics begin drugging and drinking in order to self-medicate emotional pain – but what about physical pain linked to the powerful connection between the mind and the body?

The Connection Between the Body and Mind

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study involved more than 17,000 participants from across the country. The study recruited young participants from 1995 to 1997, all of whom have been involved in long-term follow ups, tracking health-related outcomes. ACE was the first extensive study to examine and demonstrate the direct link between childhood trauma and adverse effects (including organic health conditions) later on in life. This study conclusively found that children who had undergone four or more types of adverse or traumatic events during childhood experienced higher rates of cancer, stroke, ischemic heart disease, hepatitis, skeletal fractures, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and diabetes than those who had not undergone any degree of traumatic event. The types of event studied included everything from physical and sexual abuse to psychological maltreatment and exposure to parent substance abuse or mental illness.

Since this study was originally published, numerous others have been conducted resulting in similar findings. The National Comorbidity Study found that women who were neglected or abused as children experienced a nine-fold increase in the later development of cardiovascular disease, compared to those who did not experience any degree of maltreatment during childhood. Those who experienced childhood trauma were also found to suffer from more symptoms of chronic pain, and many were found to begin abusing chemical substances in attempts to alleviate these physical symptoms. Those with a medical post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis are found to experience even greater rates of trauma-related health conditions. At this point in time, the relationship between PTSD and negative, health-related consequences are pretty well established. Severe and overwhelming stress levels, such as experienced by those suffering from PTSD, cause dysregulation within the key systems that play a vital role in the healthy functioning of the stress response. There is much scientific evidence to back these findings, but for the sake of brevity and understanding, we will touch on the most basic physiological facts.

The Science Behind Stress Regulation

The human stress system is comprised of three main components: catecholamine, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, and immune response. In response to perceived threat, the central nervous system will release norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine. The HPA axis, in response, will release another slew of chemicals – essentially, the body will begin trying to regulate itself by spewing out a vast variety of chemical compounds. The physical body will attempt to maintain stability in the face of significant stress, though when it is consistently faced with an overwhelming amount of stressors (long-term, repetitious chemical release), wear-and-tear will inevitably occur. The HPA axis and central nervous system will be activated constantly, eventually growing exhausted and ceasing to function normally or effectively.

“The human stress response has a number of checks and balances built in to ensure that various components do not become overactive. Unfortunately, in the case of severe or overwhelming stress, the normal checks and balances fail, causing inflammation levels to be abnormally high. For example, cortisol (which is normally anti-inflammatory and keeps pro-inflammatory cytokines in check) can actually change function under severe stress and potentiate the actions of IL-1 and IL-6 rather than inhibiting them. When there are too many pro-inflammatory cytokines, or other inflammatory factors, humans become vulnerable to disease.”

The relationship between the physical response to stress and the eventual development of persistent physical symptoms is further explained in the article titled Psychological Trauma and Physical Health, published by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett in 2009.

The Benefits of Trauma Recovery

In so many words, repeated exposure to traumatic experiences will inevitably affect much more than psychological and emotional health – devastation can be (and often is) all-encompassing. We at Next Chapter believe that thoroughly and effectively treating past trauma will not only work to resolve substance dependency issues, making achieving long-term sobriety all the more realistic, but that treating core issues will also work to improve all areas of life. If you have been suffering at the hands of an inexplicable physical illness and are curious to learn more about the role that trauma might play, please feel free to contact us today.