The toxic stress of childhood trauma can hurt your heart – literally.
Children who experienced adversity – such as verbal, physical or emotional abuse or living with drug or alcohol abusers – were 50 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular disease later in life than those with low exposure to childhood trauma, according to a study by the Journal of the American Heart Association. Those with even moderate exposure were 60 percent more likely to die from any cause by middle adulthood.
While no childhood is perfect, key traumatic experiences increase your health risks. To assess your risk, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created a list of 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), as well as a simple test you can take to define your score. The ACE test originated in a ground-breaking 1995 study by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente. It investigated the connection between childhood abuse and household challenges and later-life health and well-being.
How Emotional Trauma Impacts Your Physical Health
The chronic stress of difficult early-life experiences increases the amount of cortisol in your bloodstream. This, in turn, can increase heart rate, blood pressure, weight gain and blood sugar levels. The CDC estimates that at least five of the top 10 leading causes of death are associated with ACEs.
If your score is higher than you anticipated, don’t be alarmed. ACEs are more common than you might think – 61 percent of adults have experienced at least one ACE, and 16 percent have had four or more.
These events can make it more difficult to cope with the ups – and inevitable downs – of life. You may choose to self-medicate by drinking too much, smoking, overeating or taking illicit drugs. You might self-isolate or have difficulty regulating your anger – all of which can wreak havoc on your health and contribute to traditional cardiovascular risk factors, which include high blood pressure, obesity, inflammation and diabetes.
In addition to affecting our health and coping behaviors, ACEs can also negatively impact education, job opportunities, and earning potential.
Learning to cope in spite of ACEs
Exposure to childhood trauma, while tragic and difficult, does not have to result in poor health and damaging behaviors – or limit your chances of achieving your goals.
Of course, you can’t undo what happened in your childhood, but you can take action to preserve your health by finding ways to manage your stress levels. This can include a number of positive habits, such as staying socially connected, getting regular exercise, establishing good sleep patterns, spending time in nature and taking advantage of stress management tools such as meditation, deep breathing and yoga. Sometimes, more intense intervention is required, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy or working with a trauma-informed therapist.
ACEs affect people of all incomes and social levels, but not everyone who has experienced them is destined to have poor health. The important thing is to recognize that childhood adversity plays a role in how you manage stress and to take the necessary steps to mitigate its impact.
One of the ways to do that is by being aware of your current health status. Fountain Life’s Precision Diagnostics allow you to detect the early warning signs of disease before they become a crisis. Knowledge is power and will help you feel more in control of your health and your life – even if yours got off to a rocky start.