Written by Gemma Taylor
Society has undoubtedly made positive strides in breaking the taboo of talking about mental health and trauma. But it’s important to make these conversations a continual process, to ensure victims of abuse receive the support they need throughout their lives.
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as: “An emotional response to a terrible event”. While there are several natural responses to a traumatic event, including shock and denial, everyone is likely to deal with the situation differently. So while it is possible to get a better general understanding around common health implications caused by trauma, it’s important to treat every case individually, rather than taking a blanket approach to care.
Being subjected to abuse in the early stages of a young person’s life can have devastating consequences throughout their childhood and as they grow up. Sadly, while physical scars may recover, abuse can have irreparable impacts on a person’s psyche, altering their entire personality and cognitive functions.
Abuse and trauma are intrinsically linked, since the latter is often a result of harmful experiences. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the different ways in which past abuse can impact the health of a young person emotionally, physically and mentally.
The prevalence of childhood abuse
Abuse can be physical, sexual or emotional. While it’s a hard topic to discuss, it shouldn’t be shied away from; especially as it remains a prominent issue in society today. In fact, around 600,000 children across the U.S. are abused each year. More than a quarter (28%) of abuse victims are no older than two. Neglect is the most common form of abuse, accounting for 76% of cases, and tragically, 2021 statistics show that 1,820 children died in a single year due to abuse. In the vast majority of cases, it is the parents that victimize their children.
The connection between abuse, trauma and physical health is deeply rooted. Depending on the nature of the abuse, a child could suffer a range of physical injuries and even suffer from chronic pain. This can disrupt different aspects of their life, which have the potential to cause further health concerns, such as difficulty sleeping, a loss of appetite and fatigue, on top of their primary injuries.
What’s more, studies have shown that people who have experienced trauma may have an increased risk of developing chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, or obesity. This link is not something that can be ignored, and those who have experienced abuse should seek support in both healing from trauma and addressing any physical health issues related to it.
How to mitigate the physical impacts of trauma and abuse
To cope with the psychological and emotional scars of negative past experiences, lots of victims seek support from therapists and counselors who will be able to provide practical advice for managing any triggers and scars. When it comes to managing the physical impacts, there are lots of other things people can do.
Perhaps the most important aspect is for victims to consider their lifestyle. Unhealthy lifestyle choices, which can often be used as coping mechanisms, will exacerbate the impacts in the long-term. Of course, making positive changes to a daily routine is easier said than done. However, by recommending they make small changes at a time, victims can gradually work towards implementing more healthy daily habits that can ultimately improve their physical wellbeing. This primarily pertains to nutritional choices, exercise regimes and sleep patterns.
Psychological and emotional health
Perhaps something less quantifiable than physical harm is the damage abuse can do to someone’s psychological and emotional health. For survivors, the impact can be devastating, leading to anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These individuals may struggle with feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness, and may find it difficult to trust others or form healthy relationships.
Additionally, abuse and trauma can affect a person’s ability to regulate their emotions, leading to intense mood swings and difficulty managing stress. This challenge is one of the most prevalent causes of self-harm in young people, often acting as a way for them to express their suffering. Despite the immense challenges that survivors face, with access to the right support – primarily from healthcare professionals – it is possible to heal and move forward from the trauma.
Cognitive and developmental implications
It’s clear that abuse and trauma can have a profound impact on one’s mental and physical wellbeing, but it can also be heavily detrimental to their cognitive development and learning abilities. In fact, research has shown that experiencing repeated trauma can actually alter the structure and function of the brain, particularly in areas responsible for memory, attention, and emotional regulation. Children who have suffered abuse or trauma may struggle with language development, memory consolidation, and attentional processing, which can ultimately impact their academic performance as they progress through school.
In addition, the emotional toll that can affect their mental health can further hinder a child’s ability to learn and participate in classroom activities. This underscores the importance of creating safe, supportive environments in and out of school where children can heal, grow, and thrive.
What can be done?
As medical professionals, it’s crucial to be able to identify and provide support for children who are victims of abuse. One way to show support is to create a safe and welcoming environment where children feel comfortable sharing their experiences. It’s important to communicate with the child in a manner that is age-appropriate and to listen to their concerns without judgment. Medical professionals can offer resources such as counseling and therapy, and work with social workers and law enforcement when necessary. Ultimately, providing a sense of care and trust can make all the difference in helping a child heal and move forward from their trauma.
Bio: Gemma Taylor
With over 10 years’ experience in the healthcare industry, Gemma now works in the youth sector, helping young people take back control and process traumatic incidents in their lives. She is passionate about adolescent care and aims to educate and share ideas with other professionals through her writing.
American Psychological Association – Trauma
National Children’s Alliance – National statistics on child abuse
Khiron Clinics – Trauma and chronic illness
Zocdoc – Preventing self-harm in teens
NHS Wales – Trauma and the brain https://traumaticstress.nhs.wales/children-and-young-people/trauma-and-the-brain/
Please also review AIHCP’s Grief Counseling Certification program and see if it meets your academic and professional goals. These programs are online and independent study and open to qualified professionals seeking a four year certification.