impact of trauma

How trauma impacts mind, body and spirit

Trauma, whether it happened during childhood or more recently, can significantly impact mind, body and spirit. In the course of writing my books, I’ve read a lot about trauma associated with grief and loss. This, and my own personal experience of trauma and PTSD, has led to me hopefully becoming a more trauma aware and trauma informed practitioner. I have sadly come to realise just how many people have experienced trauma, to some degree or other, during their lives…

Childhood trauma

The effect of unresolved emotional trauma from childhood is now known to be a risk factor for all major chronic health conditions. Large studies of 17,500 adults in the mid 1990’s confirm that 67% of all adults had experienced at least 1 ACE (Adverse Childhood Events). Of those, 80% had experienced more than one ACE.  Having a high level of ACEs are correlated with a dramatic increase in the risk of developing 7 of the top 10 causes of death. 

ACE’s (adverse childhood events)

If you have 4 or more ACEs – your relative risk of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) is apparently 2.5 times higher when compared with people who have no ACEs; hepatitis risk is 2.5 times higher; depression 4.5 times higher; cancer is 2.5 times higher; diabetes is 1.6 times higher; a stroke is 2.6 times higher and being suicidal is 12 times higher. 8 or more ACEs triple risk of lung cancer, and increase the risk 3.5 times of ischemic heart disease. A person with 6 or more ACEs has a reduced lifespan of 20 years. So, as you can see, experiencing trauma in childhood can have a huge impact on our physical and emotional health.

ACE’s include:

  •  Parents separating or divorce
  • Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
  • Physical and emotional neglect
  • Mental illness in the family 
  • Substance abuse 
  • Death of an important family member
  • Difficult or traumatic birth
  • Bullying
  • Racism, homophobia etc

 Factors which make us more likely to be impacted by ACEs:

1. Being a Highly Sensitive Person –  some people are naturally more emotionally sensitive and aware. They are often empaths who can easily sense other people’s feelings and read the energy in a room. Their nervous system is therefore more finely tuned, which, in turn, can result in a deeper impact from ACEs.

2. Having one ACE can help  – having a low level of ACEs can actually help you deal better with another one. People with very high ACE’s may have the most adverse reactions to yet another ACE.

3. No outside support – if, during childhood there was no outside support, or the ACE’s faced were a family secret, research shows the impact is worse for the child. Just having one reliable adult to speak to about their experience can help a child to be more resilient.

4. How you store your memories of an event, your ability to reframe the meaning and even your beliefs about emotional stress itself will also affect how an ACE impacts your health and well-being.

Here’s a link to calculating your ACE score: your ace score

Trauma experienced as an adult

However, it’s not just trauma in childhood that affects our emotional and physical health, experiencing a traumatic event later on can also have a devastating effect on all aspects of our health and wellbeing. Perhaps one difference is that adults are more able to verbalise their experience and so, in theory, more likely to seek help.

So, what’s the difference between experiencing a trauma and going on to develop PTSD? Trauma is an actual event. It can be any event that causes psychological, physical, emotional or mental harm, including a death. The main difference is that a traumatic event is time-based, whereas PTSD is a longer-term condition where someone continues to have flashbacks, re-experience the traumatic event and has associated ongoing physical or mental symptoms.

According to PTSD UK, it’s estimated that 50% of people will experience a trauma at some point in their life and although the majority of people exposed to traumatic events only experience some short-term distress, around 20% of people who experience a trauma go on to develop PTSD (so around 1 in 10 people at some point in their lives). 

Women have a two to three times higher risk of developing PTSD compared to men. According to PTSD UK, the lifetime prevalence of PTSD is about 10–12% in women and 5–6% in men.  Women also appear to have a more sensitised hypothalamus–pituitary–axis than men.

Signs of PTSD:

Psychological – Re-living the trauma through a distressing recall of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares. Constantly thinking about the traumatic event. Being easily irritated and angered. Emotional numbness. Detachment. Disorientation. Feeling unreal. Overwhelm. Fear.

Physical – Increased arousal and anxiety leading to disrupted sleep, inability to concentrate, feeling of being on high alert. Nausea, sweating, trembling, pain.

Social – Avoiding places and people that might remind you of the trauma (though even ones that don’t directly do so can still provoke anxiety). Becoming isolated and withdrawn. Giving up activities you once enjoyed. Loss of purpose.

What can help

Many traumatised people find themselves chronically out of sync with those around them. What has happened cannot ever be undone but it is possible for the imprints of trauma upon the mind, body and spirit to be addressed. For change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present, says Bessel Van Der Kolk who wrote ‘The Body Keeps the Score’. A lot of treatment for trauma looks at rewiring the connection between memories, emotions and behaviours, giving new associations and coping strategies, dismantling negative cycles and creating healthier brain function. In the UK, the 2 main psychological treatments recommended for treating PTSD are EMDR and CBT.

Talking therapies alone may have limited efficacy in cases of PTSD due to its physical as well as emotional/mental expression. In fact, Van Der Kolk notes that 9/11 trauma survivors reported that acupuncture, massage, yoga and EMDR were what helped them the most, rather than the usual recommendations of traditional talk therapies made by so-called experts. Nutritional therapy can also be of benefit with some of the physical effects of trauma.

If you’ve experienced trauma and would like to know if nutritional therapy or holistic grief coaching might help, please contact me: vanessa@wellbeingandnutrition.co.uk

You can read more about grief coaching sessions here: bereavement support or here: what to expect from holistic grief coaching