Impact of Trauma, Violence and Abuse on Health Video – Brigham and Women’s Hospital
How Childhood Abuse Could Impact Your Health
Abuse, whether emotional, physical, or sexual, can have lasting effects on victims. See what health conditions are linked to abuse and how to combat them.
By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Children who are abused often grow up to be adults with serious health issues.
The consequences of abuse can be physical, psychological, or behavioral — or any combination of the three, says Heather Gillman, PsyD, a psychologist in private practice in New Paltz, New York, and a member of the American Psychological Association.
And the type of abuse doesn't matter, says Joseph Spinazzola, PhD, executive director of the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Massachusetts. Writing in the 2014 issue ofPsychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, he notes that psychological abuse can be as harmful to someone’s health as physical and sexual abuse.
5 Ways Past Abuse Could Affect Your Health Today
Researchers have learned that a number of health issues can stem from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that people experience at any point in their life. Such health issues include obesity, arthritis, mood and personality disorders, heart disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
For instance, girls who were sexually and physically abused are at greater risk for heart attack, heart disease, and stroke when they become adults, according to a study published in the journalCirculationin 2011.
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A study published online inPediatricsin 2013 found that children who received harsh physical punishments were 24 percent more likely to be obese and 35 percent more likely to have arthritis as adults than their peers who were not grabbed, slapped, pushed, or hit by an adult in their home. Children who were victims of harsh physical punishment were also more likely to develop cardiovascular disease as adults, the study found.
Similarly, another study published online inPediatricsin 2012 found that children who received harsh physical punishments were prone to mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse or dependence, and several personality disorders as adults. A third study, published inPediatricsin 2012, found a link between child abuse and obesity among some adult black women.
In addition, a study published in 2013 in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesfound that abuse scars not just children’s bodies, but also their brains, making them more susceptible to a unique form of PTSD as adults.
Still, Consequences Can Vary
Very often, victims of abuse develop unhealthy behaviors, such as eating disorders, smoking, alcohol abuse, or drug abuse that can strain their heart, lungs, and other organs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But the long-term health consequences of abuse and neglect can vary depending on the victim’s circumstances and environment, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. For some, the consequences may be mild, while for others they can be quite severe. Some victims may be fortunate and have health issues that disappear in a short time, for example, but others may suffer physical consequences for the rest of their lives.
Past trauma can trigger one’s emotions, Gillman says. And because of this, people who were emotionally, physically, or sexually abused as children need to learn coping skills so that they don’t have flashbacks that harm their health or cause mood disorders throughout their lives, she adds.
How to Avoid Health Issues From Abuse
It's possible for victims of abuse to take steps to prevent the health effects from abuse and trauma that could otherwise plague them throughout life. For instance:
Learn how to self-soothe.This involves simple things that can make you feel better, Gillman says. It could be listening to music, reading a book, taking a bubble bath, watching a movie, or going for a walk in nature. Instead of thinking about what hurts you, turn to something you find calming and pleasurable, she suggests.
Practice mindfulness meditation.According to Harvard Health, here’s how: Sit in a relaxed position on a floor cushion. Notice your body from the inside. Let yourself relax. Feel the sensations of your breath as you breathe naturally. Or focus on a word or mantra that you can repeat to yourself. If your mind wanders, try to focus again on your breathing or mantra. “When your muscles tense up, it can wreak havoc on your body,” Gillman says. This practice helps relieve stress and helps you find a sense of well-being.
Work with a therapist.Individual or group therapy can help you learn skills for coping with the emotional and physical effects of having been abused, Gillman says. She recommends dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that helps you set goals and meet challenges head on. Developed for people who were suicidal, DBT also helps people with PTSD, Gillman says.
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