The Impact of Trauma and Adversity on Mental Health

Trauma and adversity can drastically affect our emotional well-being, especially during our formative years. 

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as witnessing domestic violence, maltreatment, abuse, and societal disadvantages such as racism, neglect, and other household dysfunction, are widespread, with recent research showing that the neurodiverse population are at increased risk. These issues have affected the most vulnerable people in society for years and are expected to worsen as food insecurity and unemployment rise.

If left untreated, ACEs can cast long shadows into adulthood and have a seriously detrimental effect on our lives in the form of PTSD, toxic stress, increased risk of chronic health problems, and substance misuse. However, nothing is set in stone, and we always have the potential to heal from past traumas. We can recover and rewrite our future with proper guidance, therapeutic interventions, and a compassionate support network. 

Adversity in Childhood 

Childhood is an important time, and our experiences shape our future health, behaviour, and well-being. The concept of ACEs is key to understanding the challenges many people encounter later in life. It is rooted in a groundbreaking study conducted in 1995 by the CDC-Kaiser Permanente. Surveying around 17,000 people in California, USA, the study introduced a questionnaire examining participants’ early life experiences.

Two primary findings emerged from this study:

  • Over 2 in 3 participants had encountered at least one ACE, while nearly 1 in 4 had experienced three or more ACEs.
  • There’s a strong correlation between the number of ACEs faced and adverse health outcomes in adulthood, with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, depression, and substance misuse becoming more prevalent.

The factors that affect the impact of ACEs include:

  • Type of Adversity – Different adversities lead to varied outcomes.
  • Duration – The length of exposure can influence its lasting impact.
  • Timing – The age at which adversity occurs can determine its effect.
  • Support Systems – Strong support mechanisms can lessen the effects of adversity.

Toxic Stress

The term toxic stress represents the body’s prolonged and intense reaction to stressors, especially during our formative years. These stressors can be the actual adverse events experienced, such as abuse or neglect, and the resulting toxic stress response can potentially disrupt brain development and other organ systems. 

For example, if a river faces constant heavy rainfall, its banks will eventually swell beyond capacity and erode over time. Similarly, our body’s natural mechanisms can become overwhelmed and can begin to wear away our physical and mental well-being when we experience prolonged distress.

Toxic stress manifests in several ways, including:

  • Decreasing stress tolerance making it harder to cope with new challenges.
  • Causing difficulties in forming and maintaining friendships.
  • Increasing the release of stress hormones, which can compromise the immune system.
  • Affecting learning and memory, making academic achievements challenging.
  • Reducing the ability to engage effectively in school or at home.

As children grow into adolescence and then adulthood, the legacy of toxic stress and multiple ACEs can lead to an increased risk of:

  • Adolescent pregnancy.
  • Substance misuse, including illicit drugs, prescription medications, and alcohol.
  • Mental health challenges.
  • Physical health issues such as heart disease, obesity, and liver disease.
  • Increased risk of domestic violence or intimate partner violence.
  • Greater susceptibility to STDs/STIs.
  • Habits detrimental to health, e.g. smoking.
  • Severe outcomes like self-harm and even suicide.

The Neurobiology of Adversity

Stress activates a response in our brains that is designed to protect us in the short term. The stress response releases vast amounts of neurotransmitters like cortisol and adrenaline, and as our heart rate spikes, insulin levels fall, and glucose is released from the liver to give us the energy to fight off threats or escape. However, prolonged exposure alters neural pathways, leading to emotional and cognitive disruptions.

Chronic trauma affects the amygdala, which is responsible for fear responses, making it hyperactive. Conversely, the prefrontal cortex, which handles reasoning and impulse control, becomes suppressed. Additionally, the hippocampus, vital for memory and learning, can shrink, impacting memory consolidation. Over time, these brain changes increase susceptibility to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Reducing the Impact of ACEs as an Adult

We might not be able to avoid ACEs as a child, but as adults, there are various ways that we can start to heal and rewire our brains. Trauma-informed care is essential, as it focuses on understanding our history while ensuring we aren’t re-traumatised during treatment. It allows us to establish new connections between neurons (referred to as synaptogenesis), encourages new thought patterns and responses, reactivates previously dormant brain regions, and recalibrates our stress response to reduce inflammation that contributes to illness.

Therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), allow us to reframe the past and find new, healthy coping strategies. Also, experiential therapies, such as arts-based activities, provide holistic ways to find new peace. Writing about traumatic memories offers catharsis, and practices like mindfulness meditation and yoga help alleviate tension, promoting mental well-being. 

Perhaps most importantly, building a strong support network, strengthening community bonds and cultivating supportive relationships also plays an important role in mitigating the physiological effects of stress and fostering resilience.

The Revoke Programme: Your Path to Recovery

The Revoke Programme offers a flexible approach to recovery that doesn’t compromise your day-to-day responsibilities, and we deliver fully integrated mental and behavioural healthcare in a manageable package. We’ll help you address the underlying causes of your condition and work with you to ensure a sustainable recovery. Contact us today to learn more about our services.

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