It is so powerful to think about how when we change the way we look at the disease, there is a significant connection between stress and health, which we may not realize. What’s more, is when we realize that it is preventable! The best way to go about this is to address childhood trauma. If you look at the vast literature on addiction, for example, it’s completely clear that addiction is rooted in childhood emotional loss and trauma. However, in order to get here, we will have to discuss what trauma is. This is because people have a very, rigid or limited idea of understanding what trauma is. So if we try to understand that for example addiction is a childhood trauma, which is conditioned by social and economic issues. Then we begin to get at the root of the problem and help people improve their lives.

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What would happen if we addressed the connection between stress and health at the prenatal visit?

So when a woman comes in for a prenatal visit, the first thing we would do is assess her level of stress. We would ask questions about her childhood, whether she experienced any trauma or abuse, and whether she’s experienced any trauma as an adult. If the answer is yes to any of these questions, we would then refer her for treatment. This is something that we can do right now, and it’s completely within our power to change the course of someone’s life.

We also need to think about the social determinants of health, which are the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age. These include things like poverty, racism, and sexism. If we want to create a healthier society, we need to address these issues. We can start by providing more resources for pregnant women and new mothers. This includes things like access to quality healthcare, affordable housing, and nutritious food. We also need to make sure that all children have access to a good education and safe neighborhoods.

So why would it be surprising that human beings are the same way?

Just as plants, human beings are also implanted, the seed is implanted in a uterus, just as a seed is implanted in the earth. Why is it strange to recognize that the conditions in that environment will have a huge impact on how that organism develops? It’s just straightforward biology. The truth is that it’s really obvious and for some reason, we just ignore that reality and slowly say, “oh, so what we eat and what we, you know, the chemicals in the air and the stress and all those things affect the developing baby, that’s strange?”

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Our environment plays a huge role in the connection between stress and health!

Women who work in polluted areas, and their children will have more learning problems in schools. We know that from studies, for example, in New York City. Of course, it’s not just the physical environment that affects the physiology of the internal. It’s also the emotional environment because the placenta gains their mother’s physiology becomes the child’s physiology, the mother’s stress, the infant’s stress. That continues even after birth. For example, we know from many studies that the more stressed the parents are, the more likely the child is to have asthma. So stressed parents and the more stressed the parents are, the more likely the child may require more medications or hospitalization for them.

Additionally, a study last year in the U.S showed that the more episodes of racism a black woman experiences, the greater her risk for asthma. In other words, there’s a real connection between our emotional lives and our physiology. And that’s straightforward as well. Pure science, nothing controversial about it. It’s only that we don’t draw those conclusions. 

The Medical Profession Does Not Help End The Stigma of Trauma

The medical profession and society, in general, do not make those connections. Scientifically the actual connections are obvious and straightforward and easily explainable. The problem is we separate the mind from the body, we separate the individual from the environment, and then we have no real explanation for why people are getting sick. 

For example, the increasing epidemic of asthma in our society, the increasing epidemic of ADHD, the rise in addictions, and so on. But if we get that people’s emotional lives from conception onwards affect their physiology, people’s emotional lives occur in a context of family, neighborhood, community, society as a whole, economics, culture, and politics. Then to understand human illness dysfunction and mental problems, we have to look at the larger picture and make all these connections.  

Additionally, We Need to Think About The Systemic Impact of This

Often, we overlook living in poverty as, an intense stressor on its own. You know, even if it’s not a violent community, You know, people look at poverty and violence as going hand in hand in cities, but people who live in poverty and there’s no violence, it’s still traumatic. It’s traumatic depending on where you are. Certainly, in our society, it’s traumatic for a whole lot of reasons, but there’s again, there’s a ton of research that shows that when people are in power, they’re much more stressed.

So it’s not the deprivation per se unless it’s extreme, that causes a problem. It’s the stress of living in a society where poverty is almost a sin, and people don’t have the social cohesion to pull together and work together and support one another. And where success is celebrated as being a marker of human value.

How Do We Define Trauma?

To address the connection between stress and health, we need to first understand what trauma is. Trauma can be defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” It can involve a single event, such as an accident or natural disaster, or repeated events, like abuse or exposure to violence. Trauma is what happens inside you as a result of value. And what happens inside you is that you experience all kinds of emotions, such as rage, such as terror, such as fear, such as grief, that, that then change you. Trauma doesn’t just happen.

It changes you. It’s an injury. And that injury then has consequences for the rest of your life.”

There are three types of trauma:

single event trauma

repeated or chronic trauma

complex trauma

Single event traumas are typically experienced as a result of a natural disaster, car accident, or other

Trauma and Our Emotions

When we experience trauma, it can have a profound effect on our emotions. We may feel scared, alone, or helpless. And, we may feel like we are in danger even when we are not. We may feel numbed and disconnected from our bodies and the world around us. These are all normal reactions to trauma. Many individuals experience the phenomenon of the fight, flight, and freeze as well. If we think of this within the window of tolerance.

We are experiencing hyperarousal anxiety, stress, fear, using substances, and so on. In hypo arousal, we are dissociating, have a flat affect, numb, and disconnected. This is a defense of the body. This happens over time, that becomes ingrained in the body and the brain and the psychology and the physiology of the individual. So that’s one aspect of trauma. Additionally, there’s another aspect to trauma, which some people call, big T small t trauma, but a better word phrase for it is developmental trauma. 

What is developmental trauma?

Developmental trauma is a type of trauma that occurs in early childhood as a result of chronic exposure to various forms of adversity, such as abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction. This can lead to problems with emotional regulation, attachment, and self-esteem. Developmental trauma can have a profound effect on our physical health as well as our minds.

Further research about health and the prenatal period

In an article from the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, we can use the Integrated Scientific Framework for Childhood Development. This talks about the necessary conditions for healthy brain development. The first paragraph is about the architecture of the brain and how it is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth, continues into adulthood, and establishes either a sturdy or a fragile foundation for all the healthy learning and behavior that follow they talk about the necessary conditions for healthy brain development.

Next when considering the stress and health connection…

When I’m talking about the small T trauma or developmental trauma, this is what I’m getting at. Here’s what they say. The interactions of genes and experiences shape the circuitry of the developing brain and are critically influenced by the mutual responsiveness of adult-child relationships, particularly in early childhood years. In other words, the circuitry, chemistry, and connectivity, of the brain are critically influenced by the quality of adult-child relationships. 

So you can have childhoods where no overt trauma, the big T trauma occurs. But when the parents are just too distracted, too stressed, too distressed, whatever’s going on for them to provide the child with that necessary responsiveness that the child needs, that can also traumatize the child. In other words, traumatize them in the sense that their emotions will also be frozen, and their responses will also be limited. They will also disconnect from themselves. In other words, small t, developmental trauma I’m suggesting to you is the prevalent condition in our society for many children. Not because the parents don’t love them, but because of the stress on the parents themselves

Small t Trauma Impacts the Connection Between Stress and Health Just Like Big T Trauma

So when we’re talking about the connection between stress and health, we have to understand that it’s not just the big T trauma, but it’s also the small t trauma or developmental trauma that can lead to problems later on in life. And these problems can manifest themselves in physical illness, as well as mental health problems. Clients will come into sessions and say, you know “my parents love me, and we are not saying they do not. Instead, we have to acknowledge that when people are stressed and absent, it has an impact on us and causes developmental trauma. Additionally, we have to acknowledge that the parent’s trauma impacts our physical and mental well-being.

What is the root of most mental illnesses?

The root of most mental illnesses can be found in trauma, whether it is big T trauma or small t trauma. When we understand the connection between stress and health, we can begin to see how these traumas impact our physical and mental well-being. It is important to acknowledge that the parents’ trauma also impacts our physical and mental well-being. Additionally, in addictions work, many individuals who struggle with substance use have a history of abuse in their past

By understanding the trauma that has occurred, we can begin to work towards healing and recovery.

To heal from trauma, we must first understand it. Trauma is at the root of most mental illnesses and addiction problems. By understanding trauma and its effects on our physical and mental well-being, we can begin to heal the wounds. Trauma has been shown to impact physical health, mental health, and addiction problems. By understanding trauma, we can begin to work towards healing the wounds of the past. Trauma is a serious issue that needs to be addressed to begin the healing process. Trauma is an important issue that should not be ignored. And, trauma has far-reaching effects on our stress and health connection. The truth is that many people address issues like addiction as a disease. But if the root is trauma, why treat it like it’s a disease?

How does that make sense? Not to mention that the brain circuits that are not functioning in any adult very well, in any addicted adult are shaped by early experience. 

The circuitry of the brain itself is shaped by our emotional interactions as they act on our genes. Whether you look at the physiology or psychology of the addicted brain, you’re looking at the impacts of childhood trauma. The science behind this is not even vaguely controversial. The problem is that medical professionals are not taught how to understand trauma. People are not aware of how emotions and trauma interact. Because a majority of people do not understand the impact of trauma, it causes the issue to be pathologized and that can bring shame and guilt to those struggling. Once you heal the trauma, the issues manifesting as diseases will disappear. So we treat the trauma like trauma.

We treat the symptoms of the underlying problem not the “disease”

Let’s take ADHD for example, ADHD is considered by the experts or so-called experts, to be an inherited neurobiological disorder. And so we have this huge increase in the prevalence of what is considered to be a disease. An inherited neurobiological disorder that requires medication. Yet, when you look at the actual science, there’s very little evidence to support that ADHD is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain or that it’s genetic.

The vast majority of the scientific evidence points to the fact that ADHD is a stress-related disorder. It’s a reaction to early trauma and adversity. So when you have this disconnect between what the science is telling us and what medical professionals are saying, it creates a lot of confusion for parents. And so they’re being told by their that they cannot tolerate their emotions. Instead, when ADHD individuals get stressed, they may tune out the world around them.

How Does It Impact INdividuals When Their Stressors are Pathologized?

People may feel that individuals are not getting me. People didn’t get what they needed from their parents, and they were stressed as a result. So trauma begins to be passed from generation to generation. It’s not that something terrible happened or that parents didn’t love their kids. It’s because of childhood trauma and the way a parent’s stress shows up, it can be tough on small kids. This is how the transmission of generational trauma shows up.

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What Should We Be Taking Away from The Connection Between Health and Connection

The only thing we have to understand is that much of what we see as human dysfunction is rooted in childhood trauma. A trauma therapist may define whether it’s developmental or overt trauma. These traumas are passed on unwittingly with the best of intentions from one generation to the next. Finally, we live in a society that stresses people so much for so many reasons that a lot of children are being traumatized. And we’re seeing the impacts of that in physical illness and mental illness.  

This may also feel like a lot of information all at once. This can lead to feeling hopeless or discouraged. However, this is a message of hope. It’s much more hopeful to recognize that these are developmental problems that we can grow out of at any age. Rather than think that they’re genetic diseases that were settled within our lives.

Find a Trauma Therapist Who Can Help You Understand the Connection Between Stress and Health

We are resilient and it is hard to feel that things will ever get better. However, there is a message of hope in understanding this information. You can recover and heal. You do not have to remain stuck. If you need support in healing, It all begins with finding a trauma therapist today! Trauma is real and can be difficult to understand. Start the process with the help of a trauma therapist. Find A Trauma Therapist by clicking here and begin understanding the connection between stress and health better!

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Publish Date

July 14, 2022

About the Author

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C is an integrative trauma therapist and owner of a group practice, the Baltimore Annapolis Center for Integrative Healing. She is also the host of Therapy Chat and Trauma Chat podcasts and the founder of the Trauma Therapist Network, a website for learning information about trauma and finding resources and help for trauma.

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