For the last several decades physicians and mental health workers have theorized that there is a link between difficult childhoods and physical health.
Many clinicians noticed that the patients who reported abuse or serious neglect in childhood seemed to have very poor health.
The ACEs study actually found a link between traumatic events in childhood and the following illnesses:
That link has finally been fleshed out in a very (more than 17,000 participant) study called the Adverse Childhood Events Study (ACEs). According to the Adverse Childhood Events Study (http://attachmentdisorderhealing.com/the-greatest-study-never-told/) 66% of people surveyed had one or more types of childhood trauma and 38-42% had two or more. And this is in a study of middle-class people living in San Diego, California. Certainly children in more impoverished or desperate settings fare far worse.
For those who had childhood events that were traumatic, they suffered more ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, liver disease, autoimmune diseases, depression, suicidality, chronic anxiety, amnesia, and hallucinations. Some of these links are intuitive. For example if you suffered physical abuse in childhood it's not a stretch that you may have broken bones as a result. Also if you were emotionally abused you may end up trying to cope by using alcohol or drugs, causing liver damage. But things like heart disease or cancer seem more elusive. Is the link the immune system? the inflammatory response? Scientists are still working out the direct linkage but the fact that early childhood traumatic events stay with us now has scientific support.
So what can be done about this? We cannot go back and change our childhoods. However, we can recognize that childhood trauma can create responses in the body, such as heightened fight-or-flight responses, that warrant accommodation. If one has had significant abuse in childhood, for example, one may want to take extra care to incorporate relaxation strategies to encourage the body's relaxation response. These strategies include techniques such as diaphragmatic breathing, guided imagery, self-hypnosis, progressive muscle relaxation and meditation. By doing some of these on a daily basis one can counter-act the body's heightened fight-or-flight response that can contribute to stress related illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, insomnia, obesity, skin conditions, headaches, stomach problems, irritable bowel syndrome, depression and anxiety. Even 10 minutes each day can help re-wire the brain to maintain a more relaxed stance throughout the day.
Psychotherapy can help as well. By reviewing one's history (which, incidentally is NOT the same as re-living it!) and coming to terms with it people can reduce some of the physiological reactivity that had previously been attached to those memories. Techniques like EMDR, Somatic Experiencing or Sensory Motor Psychotherapy can be especially helpful in re-setting the bodies response in order to avoid the constant fight or flight response.
If you have had adverse childhood events in your life, even if you do not feel that you are being negatively effected on an emotional level, it may be advisable to discuss your history with your physician. As medicine and psychology become more integrated we can all benefit from the intersection between these two disciplines.
Yours in health,
Krista Jordan, Ph.D.
Dr. Jordan has been in private practice for 20 years in Texas. She is passionate about helping people to overcome hurts and obstacles from their past to find more happiness and health in their current lives.