Childhood is a crucial developmental period that has long-lasting impacts on an individual’s physical, mental, and emotional health. When an individual is exposed to traumatic events and circumstances during childhood, they experience increased risks of developing severe, chronic illnesses, including addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. Becoming familiar with the long-term effects of childhood trauma can motivate individuals to seek the professional support they need to overcome it throughout adulthood.
Understanding the Importance of a Safe and Nurturing Childhood
Childhood directly impacts how a child understands and connects with the world around them. A nurturing childhood builds the foundation for healthy cognitive functioning, learning, understanding, connecting, and behaving throughout an individual’s life. In contrast, an unsafe or traumatic childhood can set a child up for various cognitive, social, and emotional problems later in life.
According to North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS), “While positive experiences and environments can set up a young child on a stronger life-long path, traumatic experiences or environments during those formative years can have long-lasting, detrimental impact.” Children are not equipped to understand and navigate traumatic events. Therefore, exposure to childhood trauma will impact their understanding of the world and how they cope and work through traumatic events in the future.
Understanding Childhood Trauma
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) explains that more than two-thirds of children are exposed to a traumatic experience before they turn 16. However, it is important to understand that trauma is subjective. In other words, an event may be categorized as traumatic based on an individual’s unique perspective of an emotional reaction to the event.
Several events may be universally considered traumatic, especially for young children. SAMHSA highlights the following:
- Psychological, physical, or sexual abuse
- Community or school violence
- Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence
- National disasters or terrorism
- Commercial sexual exploitation
- Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
- Refugee or war experiences
- Military family-related stressors (e.g., deployment, parental loss or injury)
- Physical or sexual assault
- Serious accidents or life-threatening illness
The Effects of Childhood Trauma
Childhood trauma affects a person throughout their development and adulthood. The Child Welfare Information Gateway (CWIG), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), released a factsheet in 2019 that sheds light on the various long-term consequences of childhood trauma. It establishes that many physical, psychological, or behavioral consequences exist.
Physical Health Consequences
First, childhood trauma changes the course of an already developing brain. Specific forms of trauma, such as abuse and neglect, have been associated with slowed – and in severe cases, stopped – brain development. As a result, certain brain regions may fail to form, function, or grow altogether. Additionally, repeated instances of trauma can reduce an individual’s overall brain volume and size, directly interfering with functioning in affected brain regions.
Childhood trauma has also been linked to an increased risk of various physical health consequences during childhood and adulthood. These include:
- Chronic diseases
- Heart attacks
- High blood pressure
- Brain damage
- Migraine headaches
The CWIG factsheet also mentions the role that epigenetics plays in the development of these physical health complications. When a child is exposed to trauma, it can physically change their genes. These genetic changes can be passed down to children, making them more vulnerable to trauma consequences.
Luckily, brains—both young and old—are malleable. With appropriate treatment interventions, brains can adapt and heal from childhood trauma and its effects.
Psychological and Behavioral Health Consequences
Childhood trauma can also lead to various psychological consequences, enabling individuals to live in fear of the world around them. As a result, many individuals may develop behavioral health difficulties in an attempt to manage the long-lasting psychological impact of trauma. The following consequences may be experienced during childhood as well as throughout adulthood:
- Diminished executive functioning and cognitive skills
- Poor mental and emotional health
- Increased risk of low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety
- Attachment and social difficulties
- Posttraumatic stress and PTSD
- Increased risk of using alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate
- Future perpetration of trauma, such as maltreatment of others
- Unhealthy sexual practices
There is a strong link between childhood trauma and the development of alcohol and drug addiction. For some, the behavior of using substances as a form of mental relief is learned. Others may experiment with alcohol and drug use, finding that these substances provide a temporary outlet for intrusive thoughts and problematic emotions. Regardless of how a person is introduced, using alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate is extremely dangerous. Not only can self-medicating quickly develop into substance use disorder (SUD), but it also increases an individual’s risk of experiencing intense health complications.
Overcoming Childhood Trauma In Recovery
For those working to recover from SUD and co-occurring disorders, it is essential to recognize the impact that childhood trauma may have had on the development of your conditions. Likewise, a person must overcome any unresolved experiences of childhood trauma during treatment to reduce the potential of relapse.
Many treatment facilities now utilize trauma-informed care as their central approach to treatment. This approach assumes that all clients entering treatment have experienced trauma. Likewise, it ensures that clients will never feel retraumatized during therapy sessions. It offers a safe, understanding, and compassionate treatment environment for all.
Childhood trauma can have lasting physical, mental, and emotional effects throughout adulthood. Learning how childhood trauma contributes to different mental illnesses as an adult is necessary for establishing a lasting recovery. Grace Recovery is a women-only treatment center that is sensitive to the topics of childhood trauma. We also address other aspects of gender that inform addiction and other mental health disorders. Our vision is to assist women, and their families in reclaiming their lives, free from substance use and emotional distress. We offer various treatment services and recovery assistance for women seeking recovery. To seek treatment or entry into our transitional living homes, call us today at (737) 237-9663.