Updated: Jun 14, 2022
Today one of my esteemed colleagues Stephanie Knipper, a childhood and birth trauma specialist, joins us to discuss how childhood trauma harms more than just mental health, and what we can do about it.
Childhood Trauma Harms More Than Mental Health
You’re probably aware that trauma can negatively impact mental health. However, you
might not know that trauma—specifically childhood trauma—also impacts our physical
Between 1995 and 1997 the CDC and Kaiser Permanente conducted a study
investigating the connection between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and
health and wellbeing later in life. Over 17,000 people participated in the study and the
results were concerning.
Researchers found that 61% of people experienced at least one traumatic event before
the age of 18, and 16% (that’s 1 in 6 adults) experienced four or more ACEs. They also
found that ACEs were linked to: heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many
autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and
suicide. In fact, ACEs are associated with at least 5 of the 10 leading causes of death.
With an ACE score of 4 or more, the likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease
increased 390%; hepatitis 240%; depression 460%; and attempted suicide 1,220%. In
addition, people with an ACE score of 4 or more are twice as likely to be smokers and 7
times more likely to be alcoholic.
People with an ACE score of 6 or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by
How Mental Health Impacts Physical Health
Living in a red alert mode for months, or years, can damage our bodies. In a red alert
state, the body pumps out adrenaline and cortisol continuously. Over time, the constant
presence of adrenaline and cortisol keep blood pressure high, which weakens the heart
and circulatory system. Adrenaline and cortisol also keep glucose levels high to provide
enough energy for the heart and muscles to act quickly--which can lead to type 2
diabetes and increase cholesterol.
Too much cortisol can lead to osteoporosis, arthritis, gastrointestinal disease,
depression, anorexia nervosa, Cushing’s syndrome, hyperthyroidism, and the shrinkage
of lymph nodes, which leads to the inability to ward off infections.
If the red alert system is always on, eventually the adrenal glands give out, and the
body can’t produce enough cortisol to keep up with the demand. This may cause the
immune system to attack parts of the body, which can lead to lupus, multiple sclerosis,
rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia.
If you’re chronically stressed and then experience an additional traumatic event, your
body might have trouble returning to a normal state. Over time, you may become more
sensitive to trauma or stress, developing a hair-trigger response to events that other
people shrug off.
What Can We Do?
The first thing we need to do is normalize treatment for mental health issues. Going to
see a counselor for mental health treatment should be as common as going to see a
doctor when you have a cold. If mental health issues weren’t stigmatized more people
would seek help, which would reduce or prevent the impact of trauma on our physical
The second thing we can take away from the ACEs study is an increased awareness of
the mind-body connection. We’ve been talking about the ways trauma negatively
impacts our physical health, but did you know the reverse is also true? We can work
through the body to improve our mental health. Movement, breathing, progressive
muscle relaxation and more can all be used to promote a sense of peace and calm well-
Finally, and most importantly, we must start a dialogue about how pervasive childhood
trauma really is and the impact it has not just on individuals, but on society as a whole.
Perhaps by doing so, we can actually reduce childhood trauma.