Childhood Trauma Causes Increase In Chronic Illness For Abused Adults

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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What’s your ACE score? Go ahead, take the quiz. We’ll wait.

ACE stands for “Adverse Childhood Experience” and comes from the famous CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences study, which found that, as ACEs Too High News explains, “Childhood trauma leads to the adult onset of chronic diseases, depression and other mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence.” 64% of adults have an ACE of 1. Adults with an ACE over 4, according to ACEs Too High, are 2 times more likely than the rest of the population to smoke, 7 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 4 times more likely to have chronic bronchitis or emphysema, and a staggering 12 times the risk of suicide.

High ACEs scores translate to more drug prescriptions, more depression, and more autoimmune disorders. The ACE Study itself showed that the more adverse childhood experiences one has, the more likely they are to have adult diseases, including “ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, cancer, skeletal fracture, and liver disease.” They found that people with “multiple categories of childhood exposure were likely to have multiple health risk factors later in life.”

Emotional stress affects us, says Aeon, in “physical, quantifiable ways” — ways that come back to haunt us as we age. Stress increases levels of inflammation, and in children, constant stressful situations cause epigenetic changes that make it impossible to turn the stress response off. A researcher at the Yale School of Medicine recently analyzed the DNA of abused children and found 3,000 epigenetic changes, on all of their chromosomes. This alters how they would “respond to and rebound from future stressors.”

I have an ACE of 5. I have several psychiatric diagnoses, including treatment-resistant depression. I also have multiple autoimmune disorders: anemia, type-2 diabetes, and Hashimoto’s disease (a condition that basically caused my thyroid to up and die). My medicine cabinet is a veritable pharmacopoeia.

It has impacted my parenting to a serious degree — in one sense, you swear your children will never undergo the same types of trauma you did. Other people may call me overprotective when I refuse sleepovers, but it’s really because of my past history of abuse. Every time I speak meanly to my children, I dissolve into tears because I remember what it was like to be put down day after day. But my kids also suffer from my physical ailments, likely brought on/exacerbated by my childhood trauma. Mama can’t go to Red Robin because there’s nothing for her to eat. Mama’s exhausted because her thyroid doesn’t work. All this is the result of childhood trauma.

Sarah, age 30, has an ACE of 9. She didn’t offer which trauma out of the 10 she avoided, and I didn’t ask. But she has suffered mightily from it. She has PTSD, a severe anxiety disorder, OCD, and underwent postpartum depression after the birth of her son. She’s on several medications. When she finally came to terms with her childhood, it caused a severe rupture in her marriage — a rupture that hasn’t fully healed. This is common among those with high ACE scores, who tend to have, as ACEs Too High News says, more marriages — which would translate into more marital strife. When it comes to parenting, she says, “Acknowledging the truth of my past just made me want to be the best parent ever, so my son would never experience anything remotely close to what I did.”

Dawn, 36, also has an ACEs score of 9. She says her foundation was “built on emotional and physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence, abandonment, and grief.” She believes the constant release of cortisol in her body caused a diagnosis of arthritis at age 30. Some days, she says, her hips hurt so much she can’t sit, walk, or lie down. Heart palpitations have sent her to the ER more than once, and her migraines are so severe they mimic seizures. Parenting triggers her, and she “continues to struggle with showing/receiving affection, disciplining, and giving them what they need emotionally. I think because I got by without having what I needed, I have a difficult time identifying or recognizing what they need.” By connecting with other parents with PTSD, she started to heal. She says parents need to realize they are not alone, and they need support from people in the medical fields educated on what it’s like to parent with PTSD, so they can know what to expect.

Psychologist Linda Stiles, LSCSW, CFSW, treats many patients with childhood trauma who have high ACE scores. She sees the physical symptoms of depression and anxiety (including, she says, digestive issues and IBS, pain, headaches, and muscle tension). She claims that fibromyalgia seems more common in people who have been abused and that trauma-related stress can exacerbate or lead to autoimmune disorders as well as TMJ and eating/weight issues. Their illnesses “seem more resistant to treatment if the underlying trauma is not addressed.”

This, Stiles says, can really affect parenting. For example, she says, “If I have migraine headaches that stem from trauma and they flare up when I experience stress, I might end up spending a lot of time lying in a dark bedroom and not be present for my kids or miss out on a lot of activities. And there can be a ripple effect. For instance, they might learn unconsciously that they need to ‘take care of me’ by being quiet and not voicing their needs.”

But there is hope.

Stiles highly recommends mindfulness, which can retrain the body’s gray matter. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) “can be very effective in healing trauma and PTSD,” she says. Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy “is another evidence-based treatment for childhood trauma.” Somatic experiencing therapy and body-centered Gestalt therapy can also help.

Like Stiles recommends, Aeon also says that there are ways to dial back your body’s stress responses starting “right where you are.” Mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) “show an increase in gray matter in parts of the brain associated with managing stress, and experience shifts in genes that regulate their stress response and their level of inflammatory hormones.” Neurofeedback can help as well, as can the aforementioned cognitive behavioral therapy and EMDR. These can help physicians treat the whole patient rather than their physical symptoms and aid patients in recovering from the trauma affecting every area of their lives including their bodies.

It’s a long, hard, emotional (and expensive) journey to try to overcome childhood trauma and the effects it has on our daily lives. But it’s important to remember that there is hope, and that it is not your fault, and that you are worthy of love.

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