Traumatic stress involves a threat to a person’s life or physical integrity. It can have a profound impact on the brain, nervous system, and peripheral bodily systems. The impact of trauma on our emotional and mental health is discussed at length in the literature. However, trauma’s impact on the peripheral body (the peripheral nervous system, as well as the muscles and internal organs it connects to) is less understood. Said impact is often not considered in primary health care or even a therapist’s office.
Physicians and therapists need to understand that trauma impacts more than emotional and mental health. While the mechanism is not fully understood, we know from large, population-based studies that traumatic stress is a factor in chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease (CVD). An investigation that was conducted across diverse populations showed that people experiencing depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety are at an elevated risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.
How trauma affects the heart
Trauma is associated with behavioral factors that affect heart health and lead to an increased risk for CVD. Individuals with a history of trauma are more likely to:
- Begin smoking.
- Have low levels of physical activity.
- Abuse illicit substances and/or alcohol.
- Refuse to take medicines prescribed by doctors or follow doctors’ orders after a cardiac event.
In addition, evidence suggests there are biological effects of traumatic stress that occur independently of behavior. For example, individuals with past trauma show elevated biological markers of inflammation. In other words, traumatic stress increases inflammation in the body. In turn, inflammation has been shown to increase the risk of CVD. The effects of traumatic stress on inflammation and the subsequent link to CVD is likely to play a key role in the causal connection between trauma and CVD.
The effects of trauma on inflammation seem to hold over time. A study designed to assess trauma and inflammation looked at a sample of 1,021 individuals aged 40-90 years. Higher lifetime trauma exposure was linked to increased levels of biological markers of inflammation at baseline and after five years.
Complex trauma and its related condition, Complex Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), is different than PTSD. The cause of PTSD can be a one-time incident or group of incidents such as combat, a natural disaster, or a car accident. Meanwhile, complex trauma results from exposure to ongoing trauma over an extended period of time. Child abuse or neglect and ongoing interpersonal (relationship) trauma tend to meet the criteria for complex trauma.
The data suggest that taking steps to take better care of our bodies is extra important if we have a history of trauma. Prolonged trauma over the course of childhood results in a different cluster of symptoms and outcomes. It is sometimes more difficult to diagnose and treat. Clients with a history of prolonged trauma are exposed to elevated risk for CVD on multiple levels. Studies have found that the cumulative effects of prolonged trauma are associated with elevated levels of inflammation and have the most potent effects on one’s physical health.
What can be done today?
Studies show patients with CVD demonstrate higher biological markers of inflammation following acute mental stress as well as higher levels of circulating stress hormones. In addition to the ongoing physiological effects, childhood trauma exposure is also associated with unhealthy behaviors that further increase the risk of developing CVD.
In some cases, gaining a better understanding of how state-of-mind and health habits affect our bodies in a concrete way (such as cardiovascular risk) motivates us to make changes. The data suggest that taking steps to take better care of our bodies is extra important if we have a history of trauma. Similarly, taking steps to care for our mental health can mitigate the damage that PTSD and C-PTSD can inflict.
Therapeutic interventions are effective for PTSD and related symptoms. A trained professional can teach you strategies to deal with difficult emotions such as fear, worry, anger, and sadness. They can also help you with emotion regulation by providing the support necessary for healing.
Dealing with trauma needs to be a holistic venture, where the body, emotions, and mind are all addressed and nurtured. In addition to taking steps to improve physical health, individuals are also encouraged to seek therapy to protect their heart on every level possible.
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