The Crazy Connection Between Past Traumas And Your Present Health

Anxiety or depression had roots in your upbringing.


If you visit a psychotherapist, the first thing you’ll do together is to discuss your parents, childhood, and important aspects of your emotional life. During the course of your sessions, you’ll often come to understand that your anxiety or depression had roots in your upbringing and the way people treated you in your formative years. 

These days, those types of analysis are pretty standard. 

What’s less standard, though, is the link between physical illnesses in the present and traumas - like parental abuse or car accidents - in the past. Researchers are finding that traumatic experiences affect your chances of getting virtually every disease in the present, putting your body at higher risk. 

When you have abuse in your past, your chances of developing cancer, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and chronic pain all go up dramatically. 

What’s Causing This? 

It seems odd that sensations we experience in the mind - such as trauma - would have effects on our bodies decades later. In the West, we like to make a distinction between our thoughts and bodies. They seem to be made of different “stuff.” 

The truth, though, is that the mental and physical worlds both rub off on each other in direct and profound ways. As philosopher John Searle points out, if you make a decision to raise your arm, “the damn thing goes up.” 

Something similar seems to be happening when we experience trauma. Our thoughts change our biochemistry in a way that helps us better survive in the short-term, but damage us over the long haul. 

To understand what’s going on here, it’s important to understand how evolution works. Have you ever noticed that some animals have very short lives and others go on living for a long time? 

It all comes down to predatory pressure. There’s no need for a rabbit to live longer than, say, eight years because that’s plenty of time for it to produce offspring to replace itself. Because of predation, most rabbits don’t live longer than eight years, and so that selects against any genes that might confer a longer life. 

Baboons, for instance, don’t have as many natural predators. And so genes that confer longevity are much more likely to enter the gene pool, making their period of development from infant to adult longer in the process. 

Something similar is happening in the body of the traumatized person. If the situation appears predatory to the body, it switches on a bunch of survival genes that encourage rapid reproduction, growth, and division. And it cuts back on the pathways that allow cells to maintain and repair themselves. 

And that seems to be the crux for why trauma is so bad for people. It puts their bodies into a “grow and reproduce” state, instead of a “repair and maintain” state. The former is okay when you’re young. But once you get older, you want your body to be in repair mode more often to protect you from disease. If it’s not, then you can wind up with problems. 

The Problems Caused By Trauma

The effects of trauma tend to vary from person to person. And you can never quite predict how things will play out. 

When children are on high alert all their lives, for instance, it suppresses the action of their immune systems. All their energy is going into preparing for a fight or to run from danger. Dealing with pathogens and repairing tissues takes a back seat. 

That, in turn, can lead to cancer. The body needs the immune system to clear out dysfunctional cells. But if it isn’t working efficiently, then cancer cells don’t get swept away. And that can lead to the development of disease. 

Trauma is one of the reasons so many adults take part in pain management program courses. The condition can lead to long-term nerve dysregulation, producing neuropathic pain. 

The strange thing about this kind of pain is that it doesn’t appear to come from any identifiable source. Instead, the nerves themselves seem to be misfiring and being misinterpreted by the brain. 

Trauma can also lead to a variety of hormone balance issues too. Adrenal fatigue, for instance, seems to be much more problematic for people who’ve been through harmful life events than those who haven’t ever experienced substantial traumas in their lives.

The stress of past experience can lead to higher levels of inflammation in the body. And this, over time, can damage tissues and lead to chronic disease - not what you want. 

Dealing with past traumas, therefore, should be a matter of medical priority. Flashbacks could be damaging your health.