Understanding the Impact of Trauma: How Trauma Can Affect Your Body & Mind

SBM: understanding-impact-of-trauma-how-trauma-can-affect-body-mind

Sheela Raja, PhD; Associate Professor and Director of Clinical Behavioral Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago

Elissa Lee, OTS; Research Assistant, Lifestyle Redesign for Chronic Conditions, University of Southern California

If you’ve experience trauma or violence, you are not alone. Unfortunately, violence and trauma are extremely prevalent in the United States. From the epidemic gun violence (e.g., mass shootings, daily community violence, and police-involved shootings), the #MeToo movement, and the forced separation of refugee families seeking asylum, trauma is in our news and in our culture. Trauma impacts millions of people every year:

  • Approximately one in five women report a history of adult sexual trauma (Black, et al., 2010).
  • One in four girls and one in twenty boys experience childhood sexual abuse (Finkelhor, et al., 2014) and five children die from child abuse related injuries every day (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2010).
  • One of four women and one in seven men have experienced severe physical violence in an intimate relationship (Black et al., 2011).
  • Approximately one in ten seniors report elder abuse in the form of sexual, emotional, or physical abuse, or financial control (Hernandez-Tejada, 2013).
  • Seven percent of the population has been exposed to combat in a war zone, either as a part of military service or as a refugee/immigrant (Kilpatrick, et al., 2013).
  • Centers for Disease Control estimate that approximately 12,000 Americans die by firearm related homicides a year, and an additional 24,000 die from firearm related suicides.

Understanding Trauma

Trauma affects your body and your mind. Because many traumatic events involve violation of a person’s bodily integrity, they often have adverse influences on physical and mental health and attitudes toward medical care.

The Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) study was a landmark project in trauma-informed care that documented the relationship between self-reported childhood trauma (e.g., child abuse, neglect, parental separation, and parental mental illness and substance abuse) and adult health. In addition to mental health and substance use, ACEs are related to our physical health.

For example, people who experience more ACEs are at an increased risk of heart disease and liver disease. This may be due in part to the fact that repeated trauma and violence can change our physiology and influence the way we cope (e.g., smoking, over eating, substance use, or sexual risk taking). If you have survived trauma, you may find that although you go to the doctor when you are sick, you may actually avoid seeking preventive medical care, such as mammograms, cervical cancer screenings, and even dental cleanings (Farley et al, 2002; Farley et al., 2001; Leeners et al., 2007). It may be that you feel anxious or “re-triggered” during these appointments.

Finding Support After Trauma

People are resilient. The good news is that many people are able to live healthy, fulfilling lives, even after experiencing very difficult life events. One key to healing is finding people who can support you—these people can be a combination of friends, family, and professionals. No one heals alone.

If you have experienced trauma or violence, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider about what you’ve gone through. You don’t need to go into detail, but it’s important to remember that stressful life experiences influence the way we cope, and our overall health. A good provider will want to be part of your healing journey and will help you find the resources you need. Remember that asking for help is courageous, and that you can survive and thrive after trauma.


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