Child abuse leaves permanent imprints in the mind
By the age of 21, up to 80% of child abuse survivors had developed a psychiatric condition, such as depression or anxiety disorders, according to long-term research published in the Journal of “Child Abuse and Neglect”.
Experts have recently uncovered another troubling result of childhood trauma: people who were mistreated or neglected as children appear to be more susceptible to a number of catastrophic health disorders. Children who were verbally or physically abused were separated from their parents or had other severe adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) were more likely to suffer physical and mental ills throughout their lives, including cancer, heart disease, and depression, according to a study led by Kaiser Permanente’s Drs. Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda in 1998.
As the National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect later observed, abuse and neglect can lead to psychological issues that manifest themselves in high-risk habits like smoking, drinking, and overeating. According to the paper, this could pave the way for disorders like cancer and obesity.
Linda Luecken, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University who has co-authored much research on childhood trauma and stress, says, “The science [of mental health] is coming to grasp that child abuse can have physical impacts that endure far beyond bumps and bruises.”
Abuse is damaging in ALL ITS FORM
Child abuse can take various forms: some parents strike or verbally abuse their children on a daily basis, some sexually abuse them, others withhold affection, and still, others fail to give basic care.
Mistreatment, in whatever shape it takes, can alter a child’s brain’s hardwiring, according to Luecken. Children who do not receive enough affection from their parents develop enormous amounts of cortisol, a stress hormone, starting in infancy. Even in infants, physical discipline can activate this hormone.
A small amount of cortisol is innocuous once in a while, but too much over time can injure the heart, weaken the immune system, and generally wreak havoc on a child’s physical and mental health. Abused children may show many of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the most severe cases (PTSD).
Heightened sensitivity to stress
There’s also growing evidence that adults who were abused or neglected as children may be especially sensitive to stress, as Luecken documented in Clinical Psychology Review. Chronic abuse may alter the hardwiring of certain parts of the brain, causing “hyperarousal” responses in response to even small amounts of stress. This can result in hyperactivity, sleep disturbances, and anxiety, as well as increased susceptibility to hyperactivity, conduct disorders, and memory and learning problems. Adults who were abused as children are prone to overreacting to dangers (both actual and perceived) and taking a long time to calm down.
This heightened sensitivity to stress could put you at risk for a variety of stress-related illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, and infectious infections. Luecken and colleagues revealed in the Clinical Journal of Pain that patients with a history of child maltreatment are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, which is another problem linked to stress.
Physical and emotional problems are intertwined for teens and adults who were molested as children, according to Luecken. Survivors of abuse are more likely to experience sadness and low self-esteem, both of which might encourage risky conduct. The Annals of Internal Medicine conducted a study of men in the Philadelphia area that indicated that those who were abused as children were five times more likely to have injected illegal narcotics. They were sexually active a year sooner than other boys when they were teenagers. As a result of these practices, problems such as sexually transmitted diseases or addiction may arise.
Reducing the impact of the trauma
The good news is that children are capable of overcoming adversity. Intelligence, optimism, creativity, humor, self-esteem, and independence can all aid abuse victims in their recovery. Even children who have the worst possible start in life might develop a positive view if they are later given love and support. “There have been children who were horrifically tortured in foreign institutions who have made extraordinary recoveries after being adopted,” Luecken says.
To have a healthy future, children don’t need a beautiful upbringing or flawless parents, but they do require enough emotional support to protect them from feeling terrified and alone. “One strong bond with a caring adult, in my opinion, is sufficient. That single relationship can safeguard a youngster from stress by making him feel safe and appreciated” according to Luecken.
Other positive childhood experiences (PCEs), such as being on a sports team and having the support of close friends and family, as well as being involved in the community, have been found to help moderate and even reverse the impact of ACEs, according to research from Tufts University and elsewhere.
Adults who were mistreated as children can also take precautions to avoid the negative effects of stress. Professional counseling can assist individuals in changing their perspectives about themselves and the world. According to Luecken, a healthy diet, frequent exercise, and good medical care can help offset the negative effects of stress.
Luecken and other scientists are trying to figure out why child maltreatment has such a negative impact on physical health. The answers may be able to assist adult survivors in remaining healthy and strong despite their earlier trauma. And for the millions of children who are abused or neglected each year, such a study could pave the way for a brighter future.