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  • Writer's pictureEve Houseman

The Physical Impact of Trauma & Abuse

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

Firstly I'm not suggesting that all physical health problems are caused by the impact of Psychological trauma, it may be that you have a genetic disposition to a certain condition, or there have been environmental or nutritional factors out of your control.

However, scientific Psychological research has established that chronic stress, including one off traumatic events, emotional, sexual & physical childhood & adulthood abuse leads to adverse health outcomes. These health issues may be as a direct result of Psychological trauma, or they may be health related issues arising form a person coping with the Psychological effects of that trauma (consciously or not), for example; over eating sugar resulting in Diabetes, addiction to alcohol resulting in Cirrhosis of the liver & habitual smoking causing Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

Where's The Research?

The following is taken from the article 'A Review of Childhood Abuse, Health, and Pain-Related Problems: The Role of Psychiatric Disorders and Current Life Stress Childhood Abuse, Health, and Pain-Related Problems' published in the 'Journal of Trauma & Dissociation' by N. Sachs-Ericsson et al., 2009.

(Dr. Natalie Sachs-Ericsson is a renowned Scientist & Scholar of the Department of Psychology at Florida State University.)

The article begins:

"The current article reviews recent research demonstrating the relationship between childhood physical and sexual abuse and adult health problems. Adult survivors of childhood abuse have more health problems and more painful symptoms. We have found that psychiatric disorders account for some, but not all, of these symptoms, and that current life stress doubles the effect of childhood abuse on health problems. Possible etiologic factors in survivors’ health problems include abuse-related alterations in brain functioning that can increase vulnerability to stress and decrease immune function. Adult survivors are also more likely to participate in risky behaviours that undermine health or to have cognition's and beliefs that amplify health problems. Psychiatric disorders, although not the primary cause of difficulties, do have a role in exacerbating health and pain-related problems. We conclude by outlining treatment recommendations for abuse survivors in health care settings."

The paper offers the following research:

'Over the past decade, researchers have documented the relationship between childhood abuse and a number of serious health problems.

  • The initial studies, which collected data primarily from samples of women seeking medical treatment, noted that adult survivors of childhood abuse had more medical problems than their non abused counterparts (Sachs-Ericsson, Blazer, Plant, & Arnow, 2005).

  • These medical problems included diabetes (Kendall-Tackett & Marshall, 1999), gastrointestinal problems (Drossman, Talley, Leserman, Olden, & Barreiro, 1995; Leserman, 2005), and obesity (Williamson, Thompson, Anda, Dietz, & Felitti, 2002).

  • Abuse has been related to gynecological problems, headaches, arthritis, and breast cancer for women (Golding, 1994, 1999; Golding, Wilsnack, & Learman, 1998; Stein & Barrett-Connor, 2000) and thyroid disease for men (Stein & Barrett-Connor, 2000).

  • Furthermore, childhood sexual abuse has been found to be associated with chronic fatigue, bladder problems, asthma, and heart problems, including ischemic heart disease (Dong et al., 2004; Romans, Belaise, Martin, Morris, & Raffi, 2002).

  • Not surprisingly, abuse survivors also use more health care services (Biggs, Aziz, Tomenson, & Creed, 2003; Finestone et al., 2000).

  • Findings from epidemiological studies have been similar. For example, Golding and colleagues found that lifetime sexual abuse negatively impacts women’s overall health (Golding, 1994, 2003; Golding, Cooper, & George, 1997).

  • Similarly, Thompson, Kingree, and Desai (2004) found that childhood physical abuse increased health problems for men and women. A nationally representative survey of adults noted an increased odds ratio of gastrointestinal problems and migraine headaches for survivors of physical abuse (Goodwin, Hoven, Murison, & Hotopf, 2003).

  • Researchers in a large Canadian study (Chartier, Walker, & Naimark, 2007) also found a moderate association between childhood abuse and multiple health problems, poor or fair self-rated health, pain that interferes with activities, disability due to physical health problems, and frequent emergency department and health professional visits.

  • Using data from the National Comorbidity Survey (NCS; Sachs-Ericsson et al., 2005), we found that childhood sexual and physical abuse increased prevalence of serious health problems for both men and women, even after we controlled for current psychiatric problems and family-of-origin issues, such as family-of-origin income, early parental loss, and parental psychiatric problems. Individuals who had been either sexually or physically abused were 1.5 to 2 times more likely to have a serious health problem than their no non abused counterparts.

  • After controlling for the influence of family-of-origin variables and participants’ current psychiatric diagnoses, we found that the relationship between childhood abuse and several health problems remained significant. These problems included blindness or deafness; heart problems; and lupus, thyroid, or autoimmune problems (Cromer & Sachs-Ericsson, 2006).'

This well read & cited research paper continues with a further section on: 'Abuse & Chronic Pain Syndromes' research findings, & concludes; 'We have found that abuse survivors also have higher rates of chronic pain', 'From our data, it appears that health problems, chronic pain, and psychiatric disorders are all sequelae of past abuse. That conclusion should change the way that experts approach the treatment of patients. Each of these problems needs to be addressed in treatment. Addressing one problem and not the other would likely be insufficient in adequately meeting an individual’s treatment needs'.

Why Does Trauma & Abuse Affect Us Physically?

Somatic Experiencing;

Developed by Peter A. Levine, PhD, Somatic Experiencing draws from many different disciplines to address the physiology of stress and trauma. Dr. Levine was curious about the fact that animals in the wild aren’t traumatised by their life-and-death existence, while people can be traumatised by events that seem inconsequential to many of us. When in jeopardy, animals will access and expend enormous amounts of energy providing "the fuel” to escape the danger. Dr. Levine observed that, once the threat has been successfully overcome, there is a discharge of excess energy through the body. The body returns to baseline by allowing a chemical discharge to move through the nervous system—for example by trembling, shaking, bucking, or running further than necessary simply to escape the predator—which re-sets the mind and body and prepares it for the next challenge. 

What he realised was that animals will complete the full sequence of a response to danger, by noticing, reacting, and recovering from the threat. Humans often interrupt it.

When any part of this normal cycle is interrupted, the charge of energy gets ‘stuck’ in our bodies. We can then fail to fluctuate easily between states of different intensity, and the charge stuck in our systems will likely be triggered when in the future we encounter events, people, or things that remind us of the earlier experience that was never completed, and of course re-appear in the form of aches, pains or possibly illness.

Where there is or there might be a threat to our well-being, it’s important to understand that we have no choice but to respond, and we have only three fundamental possible responses:  flight, fight, or freeze, if we have learnt that flight or fight do not work (for example as a child we may not be able to flee) we may get stuck in freeze, almost playing dead & this is where we hold onto that energy; you can work with your therapist on this cycle to hopefully establishing this natural flow between mind and body.

I am also not advising anyone give up any medicine prescribed by a medical doctor or Psychiatrist without consultation; I am however suggesting that by looking to holistic wellness treatments such as; massage, meditation, eating a nutritionally balanced diet & taking up exercise, you will begin to ease your physical symptoms; as well as beginning the journey to exploring your underline root causes of any Psychological trauma, which may be causing you health implications, with Psychotherapy or another talking therapy.

Contact me to book a free initial telephone consultation here

Eve Houseman MBACP

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