You’ve likely heard about the mind-body connection—it’s the idea that the mind and the body are intimately connected, with each affecting the other, despite the fact that we frequently try to separate them. In reality, our minds are more intimately connected to our bodies than many of us realize. I’m not just making this up; research continues to support this fact. Some of the most fascinating research that demonstrates how intimately connected the brain and body truly are is the research that describes the link between the risk for mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and childhood trauma, which is commonly referred to as adverse childhood experiences or ACEs.
If you’re wondering what types of events constitute traumatic occurrences or ACEs, the most frequently researched forms of trauma as it pertains to increased mental health and other chronic disease risk include:
- parental separation or divorce;
- seeing your mother or another caregiver treated violently;
- having a household member with depression or another mental health concern;
- having an incarcerated household member;
- having a household member who struggles with addiction;
- physical, sexual, or verbal abuse;
- and physical or emotional neglect.
Despite the fact that these are the most commonly studied forms of trauma, there has been research done that has demonstrated links between chronic health concerns and other forms of trauma, such as:
- experiencing the death of a parent or sibling,
- growing up in foster care,
- experiencing chronic illness during childhood,
- and more.
What Mental Health Concerns Does Trauma Increase Our Risk For?
Before I explain what childhood trauma has to do with mental health in adulthood and with the mind-body connection, let’s get clear on a few more things. First of all, I want you to understand which health concerns I’m talking about when I say ACEs increase our risk for mental health concerns. So far, a growing body of research has been able to confirm a link between early-life stress or trauma and the following mental health concerns:
- Difficulty adapting
- Bipolar disorder
- Schizophrenia and other forms of psychosis
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Addiction and substance abuse
- Attempted suicide
An astounding 45% of children in the United States have experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences. For most of the health concerns that have been linked to childhood trauma, the risk increases as the number or type of trauma increases. In other words, a person who has experienced both severe physical abuse and severe physical neglect would be at increased risk for these mental health concerns compared to a person who has only experienced severe physical abuse, all other things being equal.
How Exactly Does Experiencing Trauma Increase Our Risk For Mental Health Conditions?
Now that we’re all up to speed on what constitutes an ACE and the types of mental health conditions that we know experiencing trauma during childhood predisposes us to, I’ll explain exactly how experiencing trauma increases our risk for these psychiatric concerns. Here’s a hint: it all comes down to the stress response.
Every time we experience trauma during childhood, our stress response is activated. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is the part of the stress response that controls our bodies’ response to long-term or chronic stressors. When the trauma becomes habitual or chronic, the constant activation of our stress response leads to long-term changes in our brains and bodies. This is because the stress response is activated so frequently that it develops a new normal.
Because the brain is still developing during childhood, chronic activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA axis leads to those areas of the brain (the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland) becoming hyper-reactive and overreacting to even the slightest amount of stress. When the stress response becomes hyperactive, we typically see higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol as well as increases in other stress response-related hormones. When we develop this HPA axis hyperactivity as a result of the toxic stress we experience in childhood, our adrenal glands, which are located directly above your kidneys, begin to produce and release more stress hormones like cortisol than they should under stressful circumstances.
Because our bodies were not designed to have our stress responses constantly engaged, these elevated levels of cortisol take a toll on the body. Cortisol increases our blood sugar levels, our blood pressure, and leads to changes within our immune, digestive, reproductive, and endocrine systems. Essentially, having high levels of cortisol for prolonged periods of time can lead to a disruption of all of our body systems*, and these effects of a dysregulated HPA axis on the body are the reason why experiencing adverse childhood experiences increases our risk for so many physical and mental health concerns.
Why Does This Even Matter?
All of this is crucial to know because if you’ve experienced at least one type of adverse childhood experience, you carry an increased risk for not only mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and PTSD, but a host of other physical health concerns as well, such as autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, reproductive concerns, and more. But here’s the good news: although you’ve experienced trauma during childhood that has changed your brain and body and predisposed you for many different health concerns, the good news is that there are things we can do to support our HPA axes and to support our bodies so that we are able to reduce the risk that we’ve accumulated over the years and live our healthiest and best lives now; we no longer have to be controlled by our past.
This is one of the top reasons why I advocate for knowing your risk, understanding how the trauma you’ve experienced affects your health in adulthood, and being proactive about your health in order to reduce the risk that you’ve accumulated in your life so far and break the cycle in your own life and for the sake of your children.
If you’ve read this article and you’ve experienced adversity during childhood, I encourage you to be proactive about your health. Take the ACE Assessment to find out your ACE score. I’ll also send you my Adverse Childhood Experiences and Overall Health Risk Report, which contains important information about how your ACE score can affect your risk for mental health concerns, autoimmune conditions, cardiovascular disease, reproductive concerns, and other health concerns, and important tips you can implement right away to help you minimize your risk for these types of concerns.
If you already know your ACE score, check out my book, Set On Edge to learn how ACE survivors like us are kicking ACEs to the curb and finally living our healthiest and best lives now, in spite of our difficult pasts. ACEs no longer have to define you.