The Lasting Effects of Childhood Trauma

Imagine for one second, a typical day in the life of an innocent 6 year old child living with abuse. The school bell rings at 3:00 PM and it is time to go home. An anxious, worrisome feeling takes over him. It’s a feeling that reoccurs constantly when it is time to go home.

All the other kids in his class are excited to go home and see their families, but not him. Once he arrives home, it starts to happen again. The two people that he loves the most are yelling at one another and calling each other names. A sense of fear takes over and he closes his eyes wishing it would all go away. He starts to wonder if maybe he’s the reason they fight so much. He hurts, feels helpless and will suffer the consequences of this for the rest of his life.

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris is a pediatrician and founder of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, California. At a TEDMED Conference in 2014, Dr. Harris confirmed that, “Children who are exposed in very high doses [to traumatic events] have triple the lifetime risk of [developing] heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year difference in life expectancy. Doctors today, however, are not trained in routine screening or treatment." 

Dr. Burke Harris also spoke about a study called Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACES) which was started in 1995 by doctors at Kaiser Permanente out of San Diego. This study has helped drive the research that we have today. The study had nearly 17,000 adult participants and was consistent in multiple ethnicities. Among those 17,000, the percentage of adults reporting four or more traumatic experiences was similar among Whites and African Americans (16.4 percent and 16.5 percent, respectively), slightly higher among Hispanics (17.3 percent), and slightly lower among Asian Pacific Islanders (11.4 percent). Sixty percent of adults reported at least one adverse childhood experience, and one in six adults reported having four or more traumatic experiences. 

The traumatic events they focused on included: physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; and household problems including divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse, incarceration, and mental illness. A point was given for each adverse experience reported. Results of the study found a correlation between a high score and overall poor health. The most reported abuse was emotional/verbal, with 35 percent of adults saying they’d experienced that type of abuse.

To fully understand how the human body reacts to stress, one needs to understand the physiology of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or the body's stress-response system. According to Dr. Burke Harris: “When people sense danger, the hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary [gland], which sends a signal to the adrenal glands to release adrenaline. When the body’s stress-response system is activated on a regular basis, it has a disrupting effect on the developing immune system and the developing hormonal system and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.” The reason this can be so detrimental to a child is because their bodies and brains are still developing. 

The study also suggests that repeated exposure to early trauma even affects the pleasure and reward center of the brain. It can also inhibit the prefrontal cortex which is necessary for impulse control and decision making. Jezreel Flynn and Oscar Martinez are two inmates at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility. Although they show no signs of poor health, as of yet, they are prime examples of how childhood traumatic experiences can affect decision making processes as adults.

Jezreel along with his four siblings grew up in Panama and were all raised by his mother while his father was estranged from the family. He grew up in an impoverished neighborhood where drug use was very prevalent. When asked about the trauma he experienced as a child, he stated, “The way I was verbally abused as a kid is the way I was towards women.” Flynn mentions, “Although our relationship is better now, my mother would tell me things like, she wish she would have had an abortion and that I was worthless.” 

“I am no longer like that now, but I thought it was alright at the time because that is what I grew up with. It became normal to me,” he states. “I remember being angry all the time when I was a kid; I was always fighting and I blame it on my childhood.”

Oscar Martinez also believed that his early traumatic experiences ruined his chances at a normal life. “At a very young age, I worried about how the electricity bill was going to be paid or what my sister was going to eat for dinner,” he stated, “I dropped out of high school to sell drugs so I could support my family.” 

Martinez states he was emotionally and physically abused as a child by his father. “When I turned 14 years old, as a birthday present, my father pulled out a revolver and made me play Russian roulette with him,” he recalls. “To this day, it is hard for me to trust people. I started to do drugs at an early age to cope with what I was going through.”

Although these two individuals have undergone life-altering experiences that have led them to where they are now, they remain positive for their future in hopes of redeeming themselves. Flynn gives some words of wisdom to those who are currently in similar situations by stating, “If you go through some of these experiences, learn from them. These things happen for a reason, and it builds you into the person you become. Our hurt and our pain can be our biggest strength.” 

Dr. Burke Harris urges the importance of increasing awareness with parents. "We must educate parents about the impact of adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress, the same way you would for covering electrical outlets and lead poisoning. This is treatable. This is beatable." She adds, "The single most important thing that we need today is the courage to look this problem in the face and say this is real and this is affecting all of us."

Summer 2015
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