Childhood Adversity and Trauma May Impair the Immune System

Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer can be one of the most significant life stressors a woman may ever encounter. Breast cancer survivors are more susceptible to psychological problems because of the physical and emotional effects of treatment. Women who have mastectomies may have difficulty accepting their new physical appearance and succumb to depression. Other women may fear the cancer will return at some point in the future and experience high levels of anxiety. Although these reactions are not uncommon for cancer survivors, they may be more pronounced in women with a history of childhood adversity and maltreatment. Research has shown that childhood maltreatment can increase stress response in adulthood. Life stressors that may only mildly affect a person with no childhood trauma may dramatically affect a person who has survived childhood abuse. The increased stress experienced by some people can compromise their immune systems and make them more vulnerable to infections as well. The herpes virus is one condition that is known to be exacerbated by stress. It can lay dormant for decades and flare up when an individual encounters highly stressful circumstances.

To determine if childhood adversity increases the manifestation of herpes virus in adulthood, Christopher P. Fagundes of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at the Ohio State University College of Medicine recently led a study that compared herpes virus outbreaks in a sample of 108 breast cancer survivors. Fagundes looked specifically for the presence of Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) and cytomegalovirus (CMV), two common conditions of the herpes virus. He compared the presence of those viruses in the participants who had a history of childhood adversity to the participants with no history of childhood adversity and found that the survivors with childhood traumas and struggles had increased rates of both CMV and EVB antibodies. He also found that the women with past childhood adversities had more sleep impairments, higher rates of depression, and lower education levels than the other participants. Fagundes believes that the stress response developed in childhood resulted in a weakened immune system in adulthood for the women with a history of adversity. “These findings add to the emerging literature suggesting that adverse early experiences may make people more vulnerable to immune dysregulation in adulthood.” He added, “The consequences of early adversity appear to persist across the life span.”

Fagundes, C. P., Glaser, R., Malarkey, W. B., Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K. (2012). Childhood adversity and Herpes virus latency in breast cancer survivors. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028595

Related articles:
Getting Serious About Women’s Mental Health
Women and Posttraumatic Stress
Residual Effects of Childhood Abuse in Female Adult Survivors

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  • Frank


    July 31st, 2012 at 6:31 PM

    It’s understandable that someone having a health problem could be reminded of their traumatic childhood and this could worsen the situation.

    Also, doesn’t the weakening of the immune system tell us something about how those people’s childhood trauma was handled and treated(or the lack of it rather)..?

  • JamesT


    August 1st, 2012 at 5:11 PM

    Is the characteristic phycho-semantic in that the effect on the immune system is purely related to poor upbringing or are we comparing apples and oranges. Generally poor upbringing also brings with it several other issues:

    1) Proper Nourishment
    2) Bad Sleep Habits
    3) No Preventative Care

    Could one of these be a bigger contributor?

  • helena


    August 5th, 2012 at 9:18 AM

    If at a certain point in life you have been mistreated there is a great likelihood that you now don’t have the right kind of support to surround you when you most need it.

    Some people are able to find a way out of that, but for the most part people who grow up in it tend to stay in that kind of environment.

    Of course they will probbaly be those who feel that hoplessness at a diagnosis like cancer because it is likely that they will be the ones with their entourage of half empty kind of people surrounding them.

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