The legacy of childhood trauma outlives the acute phase of an inflicting wound by a long shot.
To the contrary: What’s clear is that trauma isn’t something you just get over.
Experts know childhood trauma sticks around and manifests in various forms — sometimes as substance use but other times it shows up as a heightened risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer. That’s right: childhood trauma lingers on and sometimes develops into sickness in adults.
But the exact parameters of childhood trauma can be tricky to pin down. Is it losing a parent? Watching a loved one struggle with substance use? Parental neglect? Or, not fitting in at school? The short answer is: It might be all of the above, but it doesn’t have to be.
“The definition of trauma is when an experience overwhelms a person’s internal resources to cope,” said Jessica Caron, a social worker and Director of Operations for the Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative at Beth Israel Lahey Health Behavioral Services. “Two individuals can experience the same thing and one can walk away unaffected, while the other found it traumatic.”
Childhood traumas, experts know, have tangible effects on the brain’s development. These changes unfold across a lifetime, to the point where those who’ve experienced high levels of trauma are at triple the risk for heart disease and lung cancer, according to pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris. She gave a revolutionary Ted Talk on the subject and implored health care providers to take a trauma-focused approach in their practices.
Trauma, Burke Harris explains, can even affect a child’s DNA and often shows up with symptoms similar to Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD).
As Burke Harris points out in the Ted Talk, the heightened disease risk is not correlated with unhealthy lifestyle habits, but traumatic experiences alone.
A test called the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study measures 10 types of traumatic experiences. The higher a person’s ACEs, the higher risk they have for disease, mental illness and substance use.
Beth Israel Lahey Health has implemented a trauma-informed approach, Caron explained. Providers assume patients have had traumatic experiences and need to be treated accordingly as a universal precaution. Without processing a trauma, it is possible that behaviors that were vital to surviving the trauma will continue to be used even if seemingly unhelpful. Left untreated, a person can develop negative ways of looking at the event, which can influence their lives on whole.
“These thoughts might include things like ‘I’m worthless,’ or ‘it’s my fault'” she said. “It’s important that a child is able to process the trauma. Without the support of a trusted and trained adult they may blame themselves.”
Processing a trauma, Caron said, can look like creating a narrative and point by point going through it, analyzing any maladaptive thoughts and finding new ways of thinking about the experience as well as new ways of coping with stress. These new thoughts might include, “I’m important,’ or ‘something terrible happened and it’s not my fault.”
Coupled with the difficulty a trauma presents to anyone, youngsters who experience traumatic incidents can have a harder time processing because their brain isn’t yet fully developed.
“The ability to process is learning to cope with the traumatic experience and function day to day,” Caron said. “We are now aware of post traumatic growth; people can gain resiliency or ‘learn to bounce back’.” The take away is that like many medical conditions, trauma can be treated.