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Childhood Trauma and The Impact it Has on One's Mental Health

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.

The Statistics

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

20 years.

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.


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