Traumatic childhood experiences leave a deeper scar on one’s mind than they do on the body. The physical scars eventually fade away, but the damage done to one’s mind hugely impacts one’s physical and psychological development into adulthood. Child health experts believe that there are long-term effects of childhood trauma on brain development that can explain the cognitive, behavioral, and mental responses of adults living with unresolved childhood trauma in certain situations.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among 1 in 6 adults have been reported to have suffered through four or more forms of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in their lifetime which, in turn, has affected their mental and physical development in some way, rendering them more susceptible to several mental and physical disorders.
In this article, we will shed light on the topic of ACEs, determining their link with adult mental health, including the types of childhood trauma, mental and physical disorders caused by it, treatment and prevention methods along with the long-term effects of childhood trauma.
But first, what exactly are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
As defined by the CDC, Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, are potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years). For example experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect, witnessing violence in the home or community, [and/or] having a family member attempt or die by suicide.
Any event that leaves a person in a state of psychological shock can be referred to as trauma. There are several events that can be traumatic to a child.
- Witnessing domestic violence
- Child abuse
- Psychological and physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Terrorism and violence
- Suffering from or living with someone suffering from mental health issues
- Parent’s divorce/separation
- Death of a loved one
- Experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening scenario
- Suffering from/living with or caring for a person suffering from a terminal illness.
- War and refugee trauma
- Experiencing natural disasters
It is important to understand that children have a different way of perceiving situations than adults do. So, it is quite possible that events that may not be traumatic for an adult might be terrifying for children.
Additionally, children are keen observers, so, it may not be as easy for them to shake off such experiences, and past trauma may stay with them for a while, which, if left untreated, may lead to a multitude of adverse issues that can have long-term physical and psychological effects on their future health.
Types of childhood trauma
Trauma can be acute, chronic, or complex and its effects and coping methods may or may not vary according to the kind of trauma one has suffered.
- Acute trauma is a one-time tragedy; short-term and short-lived, never to happen again. Like a car accident, serious injury, or a natural disaster.
- Chronic trauma refers to a sequence of multiple traumatic events or exposure to the same trauma repeatedly over a long time. This can include bullying, neglect, or physical and sexual abuse.
- Complex trauma is similar to chronic trauma. However, it is often interpersonal in nature. Complex trauma also includes in its definition, the lasting effects that follow the distressing events.
Long term effects of childhood trauma
Immediately after suffering a tragedy, a person may feel overwhelmed with fear and grief but these feelings usually subside fairly quickly. If these feelings persist, however, they may develop into something more. Apart from the effects of childhood trauma on psychological functioning, it is known to impact a person’s physical health and is also associated with behavioral problems later in life. Exposure to traumatic childhood experiences is also associated with premature adult deaths.
Effects of trauma on physical health
Experts strongly believe that early childhood trauma and brain development are closely linked together. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, NCTSN, states that exposure to, and inability to resolve past trauma is linked to a reduced size of the brain cortex which is responsible for performing functions crucial to a child’s development.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study suggests that adults living with unprocessed trauma may develop an increased risk of chronic physical illnesses like cardiovascular disease, skeletal fractures, cancer, liver disease, and chronic lung disease in the future along with obesity, diabetes, asthma, kidney problems, and stroke. These claims are supported by many other studies carried out to understand ACEs.
Traumatic childhood experiences and behavioral problems
The latest research about ACEs has found that adults living with childhood trauma have an increased risk of developing behavioral problems and cognitive impairment. A person living with unprocessed trauma may react impulsively and intensely to situations that people who haven’t experienced the same would remain calm in.
Early childhood trauma in adults may translate into aggression and reckless behavior, such as heavy drinking, smoking, overeating, substance abuse, lack of interpersonal skills, and more.
Studies suggest, lack of emotional support results in failure to move past one’s fears. Consequently, adults living with childhood trauma keep revisiting their past, getting stuck in an endless loop of recurrent mental distress that doesn’t let them heal.
Dissociation, marital problems, learning problems, aggression, addiction, anger issues, and cognitive disorders are all linked to unresolved childhood trauma.
Effects of trauma on mental health
Adults living with past trauma are more susceptible to developing a multitude of mental health disorders. Children have a harder time moving past traumatic situations and the helplessness, sadness, and confusion may linger. Such feelings, if not resolved, can develop into anxiety disorders, chronic stress, suicide, suicidal thoughts, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Traumatic events can change the way one perceives situations and people. It can also impact the way one feels about themselves. It can shatter one’s confidence in others as well as themselves along with inducing feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that prevent the person from moving on from their tragic past. Feelings of guilt, shame, and low self-esteem are also among the signs of childhood trauma in adults
Childhood trauma and PTSD
Although childhood trauma affects adult mental health in various ways, PTSD is the most common form it takes. According to the data collected by the American Psychiatric Association, APA, about 3.5 percent of adults in the US are affected by PTSD every year.
PTSD is a mental health disorder that develops as a result of experiencing severe trauma such as wars, abuse, or life-threatening events. Most adults living with childhood trauma suffer from PTSD. This occurs when the sufferer doesn’t get the proper help that is needed after experiencing a tragedy.
Symptoms include insomnia, nightmares and night terrors, intrusive thoughts, intense feelings of fear, anger, or grief and repeatedly revisiting the very trauma that caused this.
Although PTSD can happen to anyone from any culture or ethnicity, at any age, to any gender, certain factors increase the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder. The severity and duration of trauma along with the kind of support — or lack thereof — are major determinants of the likelihood of developing this condition.
Certain groups of people are exposed to traumatic experiences more than others. This makes them more likely to develop mental health disorders like PTSD and depression. These groups include women, children, the LGBT community, and certain ethnic groups found in the minority.
Childhood trauma treatment for adults
The effects of trauma can be dangerous, if not treated promptly. Several treatment methods are available to prevent the risk of developing serious mental and physical disorders due to trauma in adults.
- Emotional Support: Mild cases of acute trauma are easily treatable at home with the right kind of help. Family members can talk children through the events that caused them trauma and provide emotional support where necessary.
- Trauma-focused CBT: TF-CBT is a proven, evidence-based treatment method for tending to adolescents and adults living with childhood trauma. It involves having the sufferers address their fears and try to come to terms with them through cognitive restructuring.
- NET: Narrative Exposure Therapy is especially recommended for complex and chronic trauma sufferers. It is a short term therapy with guaranteed results for the treatment of childhood trauma in adults.
- EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, EMDR, is a form of psychotherapy used to treat adults who have suffered from traumatic childhood experiences for the prevention of and recovery from various psychological conditions like PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
It can be an unnerving and exhausting process to deal with past trauma but an equally necessary one. Healing early childhood trauma in adults can aid in the prevention of long-term effects of childhood trauma from manifesting later in life, ensuring a healthy and happy life in the future.