Lasting Effects of Childhood Trauma

Dave Pelzer is the victim of the third-worst child abuse case in the history of California. In his book A Child Called “It”, he says, “I knew I was never meant to be loved. I knew I would never live a life like my brothers. Worst of all, I knew it was only a matter of time until Kevin [his baby brother] would hate me, just like the others did” (Pelzer 145; ch.7). In this quote, Pelzer demonstrates just the emotional aspect of the effects of childhood trauma. He was so abused by his mother that he thought he was never meant to be loved. According to ER Nurse Lynda Gibbons, “Domestic violence [child abuse/trauma] refers to the use or threat of physical, sexual or emotional force by spouses, partners, relatives, or anyone else with a close relationship with their victims.” Childhood trauma can have many lasting emotional, psychological, and physical effects.

As a method of abuse, Pelzer’s mother would tell him that she had received a letter from the North Pole, or the Principle (which was a lie; Pelzer was a good student) saying Pelzer had been a “bad boy,” and would then proceed to punish him for it. The continued abuse left Pelzer feeling worthless and like everything was his fault. This form of abuse is called emotional abuse, and its effects are precursors of more serious effects. Emotional abuse can affect many areas of your life, with the most frequently affected being relations with family members. Women who were abused as children will most likely have an extremely difficult time raising a child. To feel like they are still in control (because control is frequently essential in the daily lives of previously abused women), they will enact measures of aggression, submission, or any number of different “extremes” that are unique to the individual (Prescott). These measures are necessary to them because of the traumatic experiences of their youth. As a result, the child will feel like his or her mother has lost her mind and will distance himself or herself from her. This distance can have the same emotional detriment as neglect, a form of emotional abuse, and can leave lasting effects on the child’s mind. Adults who experienced CPA (Childhood Physical Abuse) and CSA (Childhood Sexual Abuse) may be over- or under-protective of their child, resulting in an unhealthy relationship or one the child perceives as “unloving” (Prescott). Adults who were abused as children may have a hard time connecting with their friends and family. The victim’s friends fade away in many cases, as they are too afraid of other people to spend time with them. The victim may also have an extremely difficult time forming new relationships, since that would require reaching out to strangers, which is hard for someone with that kind of emotional damage to do. Most victims of emotional abuse do not know how to handle themselves around people they are not familiar with and lack the understanding of people required to form lasting emotional bonds.

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Victims of abuse may also suffer from a lack or absence of self-esteem. Dave Pelzer experienced many forms of abuse, but there was one instance that damaged his self-esteem more than others. In an effort to destroy his self-respect, Pelzer’s mother attempted to make him eat his baby brother’s defecation (Pelzer 55-57). This disgusting example of abuse threw Pelzer into a well of despair and self-destructive thoughts. Damaging a child’s self-esteem is a nearly sure-fire way to damage them emotionally, because the way we view ourselves is essential to how we react to different things that occur. For example, if a child who had been previously abused and punched by an adult, he or she may believe it is his or her fault because the abuse lowered hi or her self-esteem to such a point that he or she has no sense of self-worth. Low self-esteem and continued abuse can lead to self-destructive behavior later in life. To back this up, a study was done in 1994 on previously abused women; 65-70% of women who suffered abuse as children were considered “permanently damaged” by professional psychiatrist. In an effort to recover, the women had to sit in with a psychiatrist and be told, repeatedly, that it was not their faults they were abused; it was the abusers’ (Prescott). Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) can be even more detrimental to a person’s self-esteem. In a recent article on dealing with the effects of CSA, Andrya Prescott says that “some [people] may find it very emotionally traumatic, some may be in denial.” Denial is a coping mechanism that prevents someone from consciously experiencing the pain or trauma from an event by making the person believe it did not actually happen (even though they subconsciously know it did). Another factor in the amount of perceived damage to a person’s emotional state is how early in life the trauma occurs. If the trauma occurs earlier in life, it has a far more powerful effect on the victim. This extends to even prenatal trauma, experienced by the mother and then the fetus has the same biochemical, and therefore emotional, response. This feeling of distress is “imprinted” on the child’s subconscious, and can go on to cause anxiety and low self-esteem (Harris). This “imprinted” trauma acts like a trigger, and, when detonated by CPA or CSA, can result in severe psychiatric disorders (Jovanovic et al.).

Victims of CPA and CSA are nearly always affected by their former abuse later on in life. They often develop phobias, which are defined as fears with no rationale behind them, or “irrational fears.” Just for example, women who were abused as children often have a large phobia of needles and men (Prescott). These fears can go on to disrupt their everyday lives as adults, and their interactions with other people. Parents who experienced child abuse will often distance themselves from their children, because they fear their child “being abused” and often even fear themselves abusing their child (Prescott). While some may see this as foolish, it is sensible. The adult was abused, so they fear they will turn into their parents and start abusing their kids. This is referred to as the “cycle of abuse.” Another common fear that some survivors of abuse experience is the fear of being strapped down or held (Prescott). Some of these fears make more sense than others, but they all can have a serious effect on a person’s life.

People who were abused often have “latent fears,” or fears that stick around subconsciously. A major sign of latent fears is flashbacks. People who experience CPA or CSA may have extreme reactions and flashbacks triggered by everyday items or occurrences: i.e. kitchen utensils or alarm clocks going off (Prescott). Flashbacks occur when someone is reminded of a traumatic experience, and he or she remembers that experience in vivid detail, in a way that is comparable to living it a second time. These flashbacks can be very hard on someone who is already suffering emotionally, and can even compound the trauma that is already there and undo any therapy the victim has received since the incident. Latent fears are especially prevalent in women when they are raising a child. Giving birth can be extremely traumatic for a woman who has experienced CSA and can do lasting harm to the relationship between herself and her child. The mother does not show love to the child, for fear of growing close to anyone, and the child does not show love to her child, etc. This is part of the cycle of abuse, but is more based on neglect than actual abuse (Prescott).

Psychological effects are a step up from emotional effects. The emotional injuries that accumulate from abuse often hide deep inside a person’s subconscious, causing them to develop nearly-permanent psychological issues. Studies have shown that women are “more vulnerable” to the effects of CPA and are affected for far longer periods of time than men (Haatainen et al.).Usually the first thing that is affected psychologically is a person’s stress response. When one experiences something that his or her body recognizes as “stressful,” it initiates the HPA (Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis. This axis controls the amount of hormones that are circulating through his or her body at any given time. When one experiences stress, it releases cortisol, also called the “stress hormone.” Cortisol, along with epinephrine and a few other hormones, activates one’s “fight-or-flight” response. The heart will beat faster, blood flow to the brain increases, and the muscles receive more oxygen, all to prepare one to react to whatever the stressful stimulus is. When a child experiences trauma or stress repeatedly over a long period of time, his/her body loses the ability to “calm down”; essentially, he or she is always in a fight-or-flight response. This can lead to the development of phobias and an increased or decreased base cortisol level (Simkin). Penny Simkin, discussing this inability to “calm down,” says:

During trauma, an individual reacts with one or two basic survival responses: a sympathetic nervous system response –‘fight or flight’—or a parasympathetic nervous system response—‘freezing’ [. . . .] If the trauma is repeated frequently, the child learns to never let her guard down, which leads to an inability to turn off these adaptive responses when there is no danger.

A recent test done on people who experienced early life stress (ELS) showed that ELS has extreme neurobiological effects. These effects include an overbalance of cortisol, which can lead to a number of illnesses and conditions (Jovanovic et al.). According to Tanja Jovanovic, ELS can have a long lasting effect on the human mind. She says, “early-life stress (ELS) is a predictor of adult MDD [Major depressive disorder], whereas ELS and adult trauma are both predictors of PTSD [Post-traumatic stress disorder]” (Jovanovic et al.). This suggests that ELS acts like a fuse, and the adult trauma is the trigger that sets the fuse off, ending in a psychiatric disorder such as PTSD (Jovanovic et al.). A childhood of physical and sexual abuse can also lead people to seek other means of release, such as drugs or alcohol. Dr. Rebecca Reeve, in an article on the long-term effects of child abuse, says, “Among men, the probability of drug abuse rose from 7.5 per cent generally to 25.8 per cent for those who had suffered combined [CPA and CSA] abuse.” This is saying that people who experienced child abuse develop a dependency on alcohol often because they need to be relieved of the emotional stress of their trauma (Reeve).

Another major psychological effect from child abuse is developmental problems. In fact, children who are abused frequently lose memories of their childhood, as a coping mechanism in their subconscious. In this way, they lost an essential portion of their development, causing them to be behind others in speech, intellect, or social ability (Simkin). Children need a constant positive parental influence to develop correctly. Without a guiding hand, children are much more likely to develop extreme behavioral problems, when accompanied by instability in the household (Bakker et al.). Early trauma can also have a direct influence on the development of a child’s brain. Trauma during childhood could result in halted growth of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is used to learn and store memories. It could also damage the prefrontal cortex, which “regulates” behavior (Suyaga et al.). Stress plays a large role in this halted development as well. If a child is subjected to long periods of heightened stress, it increases the amount of CBGs (corticosteroid-binding globulin) that are produced. This change can often be permanent. As more CBGs are produced than there are at normal levels, it binds to cortisol, neutralizing it. Since there is less free cortisol in the blood, there is more perceived stress. This overbalance causes extended periods of stress in which more cortisol and CBGs are produced in a vicious cycle, leading to the development of PTSD, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and other psychiatric disorders (“Childhood Trauma”). In a test conducted by ISTSS (International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies), it was found that people who were victims of CPA had a much higher percentage of at least one psychiatric disorder and a higher suicide attempt rate than people who did not experience CPA (Suyaga et al.). Childhood trauma also has a lasting effect on one’s internal body systems. According to a recent study on the effects of early life stress, ELS that stems from child abuse (CPA or CSA) can result in neurohormonal development issues, which can cause permanent hormonal dysfunction disorders[ i.e. dwarfism] (Carpenter et al.). Adults who were abused as children may also be damaged in such a way that they abuse their children. They were accustomed to beatings and being maltreated, and it became commonplace and in some wrong way, right. When they are parents (if they are ever able to overcome the trauma and have children), they treat their children in the same way, because of some subconscious compulsion. The history of CPA in adults is greatly related to the number of physically abuse children. In other words, adults who were abused are much more likely to abuse their children (Haatainen et al.).

Childhood abuse and trauma can have many serious effects, but the most serious of those are most likely the physical effects. In a way, physical effects are all the other effects compounded. Emotional effects are formed primarily, based on responses to stimuli in the womb or in early formative years. These effects are the longest lasting, and contribute to the production of negative thoughts, which mutate into psychological effects. These psychological effects are buried in the subconscious, which conflicts with the victim’s rational thinking later in life. This conflict produces physical effects, such as a lowered immune system, and the development of long-term conditions, such as asthma and cancer. One of the biggest effectors is cortisol. Cortisol is produced as a result of the stressful stimuli. In large amounts, cortisol can damage the body by decreasing bone formation, breaking down necessary fat, and dissolving muscle. This can lead to a lack of immune support, weight loss, and other symptoms associated with stress. This is called a “psychosomatic response”—when the thoughts or emotions of the brain evolve to physically effect the body. Another psychosomatic response is insomnia. Boston University Medical Center, on the subject of insomnia, states, “unexplainable lifelong insomnia is usually attributed to a neurological abnormality, according to sleep disorders specialist Sanford Auerbach, M.D., but he found that in nine of his patients insomnia was tied to previous sexual abuse” (qtd. in “Adult”). The victims in another study done by Boston University said that they could not sleep because when they tried to, they experienced fear and stress. This also prevented them from relaxing on vacation, when their symptoms actually worsened (“Adult”). They could not sleep simply from fear of abuse. In a study that occurred in 1982, psychologists did psych profiles on women who came to the hospital for a breast biopsy. Using only psychological factors, they were able to determine which women had breast cancer with a 94% success rate (Harris). A big part of physical effects is actual injury from the abuse. Victims of CPA may be left with poorly-working joints or muscles, as well are permanent tissue damage to areas such as the brain (Gibbons). David Kissen, a prominent British surgeon in the 1960’s, did some research in Scotland on the relationship between emotional repression and cancer caused by smoking cigarettes. He found that smokers who repressed emotions were five times more likely to develop cancer than those who shared their emotions openly (Harris). This study shows that if someone “bottles up” his or her emotions, it damages the body. This occurs from the buildup of cortisol, which lowers the immune system and can even upset cellular biology in some cases, leading to cancer (Harris).

As a general observation, it seems that cortisol, the “stress hormone,” is at the center of all of these effects. Perhaps it plays a more prominent role than most doctors realize? In any case, stress levels are the key to how child abuse affects people later in life, resulting in a near-inability to love, lowered immunity, psychiatric disorders, and, in some major cases, cancer. Child abuse certainly has a much larger effect on its victims than we were previously aware of.

Works Cited

“Adult Insomnia and Childhood Sexual Abuse.” Total Health 15.5(1993): n.pag. Alt Healthwatch. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.

Bakker, Martin P., et al. “Childhood Family Instability and Mental Health Problems During Late Adolescence: A Test of Two Mediation Models.” Journal of Clinical Child and Adolecent Psychology 41.2(2012): 166-176. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 26 Jan. 2014.

Carpenter, Linda L., et al. “Effects of Child Physical Abuse on Cortisol Stress Response.”

Psychopharmacology 214.1(2011):367-375. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 8 Feb. 2014.

“Childhood Trauma Linked to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.” Massage Magazine 54 (2009):23. Alt Healthwatch. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.

Gibbons, Lynda. “Dealing with the Effects of Domestic Violence.” Emergency Nurse 19.4 (2011): 12-17. Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

Haatainen, K.M., et al. “Gender Differences in the Association of Adult Hopelessness with Adverse Childhood Experiences.” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology 38.1(2003): 12. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

Harris, Gerald A. “Early Childhood Emotional Trauma: An Important Factor in the Aetiology of Cancer and other Diseases.” European Journal of Clinical Hypnosis 7.2(2006): 2-10. Alt Healthwatch. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.

Jovanovic, Tanja, et al. “Child Abuse is Associated with Increased Startle Reactivity in Adulthood.” Depression and Anxiety 26.11(2009): 1018-1026. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.

Pelzer, Dave. A Child Called “It”. Omaha: Omaha, 1995. Print.

Prescott, Andrya. “Childhood Sexual Abuse and the Potential Impact on Maternity.” Midwifery Matters 92(2002): 17-20. Alt Healthwatch. Web. 15 Jan. 2014.

Reeve, Rebecca. “The Truth is That the Effects of Child Abuse are Long-Lasting.” Editorial. The Sydney Morning Herald 07 Oct. 2013: 18. EBSCO. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

Simkin, Penny. “Child Abuse as Loss.” International Journal of Childbirth Education 20.3 (2005): 38-40. Alt Healthwatch. Web. 16 Jan. 2014.

Suyaga, Louisa, et al. “Child Physical Abuse and Adult Mental Health: A National Study.” Journal of Traumatic Stress 25.4 (2012): 384-392. Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection. Web. 13 Jan. 2014.

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