How childhood trauma affects adults later

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Some people assume we forget or outgrow trauma. But the truth is, if someone experiences trauma as a child, it can lead to physical and mental struggles that affect their entire life.

Here, Thomas O’Connor, director of the Wynne Center for Family Research at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and Kristen Holderle, UR Medicine’s clinic director of the HEAL Collaborative, share the ways in which trauma affects the brain and body, how PTSD and trauma are related, and suggestions for healing:

What is the difference between trauma and PTSD?

With trauma, a person fears for their own safety or the safety of a loved one. It can be anything from a loss of a parent to experiencing or witnessing an assault to being in a car accident.

Trauma can lead to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), a condition that requires professional treatment. The key sign of PTSD is that the person has difficulty doing the day-to-day things that they had done prior to a traumatic event.

Symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Flashbacks
  • Distressing intrusive thoughts
  • Avoiding things that remind you of the trauma
  • Feeling jumpy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Shutting down emotionally
  • Lack of interest in things you enjoyed before

Not everyone will experience a traumatic event the same (even those exposed to the same traumatic event may respond differently), and a traumatic event does not necessarily lead to PTSD.

“It’s normal to react deeply to a stressful event,” Holderle says. “If you’re having a hard time, that doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. It’s important to normalize big feelings and big reactions.”

Several factors can determine if experiencing a trauma will become a bigger problem and require help.

How can childhood trauma affect adulthood?

The impact of childhood trauma on life as an adult can depend on the environment in which the person was raised, how they coped with the trauma and supports that were available, and when in life the trauma occurred.

To determine risks of developing mental illness, addiction, and other conditions, it is now common to ask about past traumatic events using measures like the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience). The higher a person’s ACE score, the more likely it is that they will have negative physical or mental health outcomes.

“The studies suggest that this happens because early trauma affects stress response,” Holderle says. “Your flight or fight response, your neurodevelopment, gets off track. It suggests that if you can intervene early, when someone has a childhood traumatic event, it could have a huge lasting impact on their life.”

The earlier the intervention, the greater chance that treatment can help, especially for trauma early in childhood.

When a person develops behaviors to deal with an early childhood trauma, changing those habits later in life can be more difficult.

Can trauma affect physical health?

Yes. In addition to affecting mental health and coping mechanisms, trauma has been proven to affect physical health as well.

“Research has shown that the experience of trauma not only influences our thinking and behavioral patterns, but also our biology,” says O’Connor. “Trauma influences our stress response system and may be associated with compromised immunity and poor cardiovascular health.”

Researchers have identified ways in which the brain may be altered by a traumatic event. The salience network, which is a part of the brain used for learning and survival, was shown to be altered in people exposed to trauma—including those with and without PTSD.

UR Medicine scientists are also investigating how the effects of trauma may be passed on, such as the ways biological changes caused by trauma affect health in pregnancy. They are also exploring epigenetics, the study of how behavior and environment can affect the way genes work.

What can help with healing?

If someone you care about has experienced trauma, it can help to offer a listening ear and encourage that person to talk about, rather than avoid, the event.

“Sometimes trauma happens, and people feel scared to talk about it because they don’t want to make it worse,” says Holderle. “It’s important to talk about. You might not be able to fix things, and that’s okay.”

Therapy can help a person make sense of the experience and move forward.

The type of therapy recommended will vary, but could include:

  • Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Cognitive processing therapy
  • Written expressive therapy

Most therapists will focus on helping individuals separate themselves from the traumatic experience.

“A lot of the work we do is trying to help people even before the story that they make of the trauma is solidified,” says Holderle. “We try to help with the narrative. We can’t change our past, but we can change our relationship to it.”

Source: Sydney Burrows for University of Rochester