The Impact of Childhood Trauma on Behavioral Health

There has been a great deal of research on trauma that occurs early in life, and on the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, household violence or substance misuse, separation of families, and other family problems that can occur.

Research has demonstrated a strong relationship between the ACEs and negative health outcomes.  One 2015 study on long-term physical health consequences of the ACEs found that factors such as experiencing early life abuse, parental divorce, witnessing domestic violence, and living with someone who was depressed, abused drugs or alcohol, or who had been incarcerated were associated with poor physical health outcomes such as diabetes and heart attack. However, these health outcomes could be effected by certain health behaviors, suggesting that stress-related coping behaviors may be crucial links between trauma in the childhood home and adult health.

There is also a strong connection between childhood trauma and adolescent and adult substance use disorders, and behavioral problems. These ongoing, stressful events can disrupt a child’s neurodevelopment and result in impairment of their cognitive functioning or ability to cope with negative emotions. Over time, and often during adolescence, they can lead to negative coping mechanisms, such as substance use or self-harm. Eventually, these unhealthy coping mechanisms can contribute to disease, disability, and social problems, as well as premature mortality.

But there is hope.  It is true what they say – knowledge is power. Once our community begins to understand that our bodies and brains can be harmed by trauma, we can begin to take the necessary, science-based steps to remove the negative effects of this type of damaging stress. We can begin a journey to healing and health.

Science tells us that our past does not have to control our future. ACEs can be damaging for a lifetime, but they don’t have to be. We can reboot our brains, even after decades or a lifetime of reactive behavior. We can respond to life’s inevitable stressors more appropriately.

Today, researchers recognize a range of promising approaches to help create new neurons, and promote new patterns of thoughts and reactions.  Writing, practicing mindfulness, exercise, talk therapy, medication therapy, strengthening peer connections, spiritual connections, and community connections can all help us heal from our past trauma and live a healthier life.  Click here to take the ACEs quiz and learn more.