If trauma is left untreated, it can impact your physical health. In other words, if you’ve survived a traumatic incident, ignoring mental health treatment can negatively impact your body.
If you have endured at least one instance of trauma before your 18th birthday, you’re not alone. The rates of childhood trauma are high. According to a 2012 report by the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, more than 60% of children in the United States were exposed to at least one type of violence that year. Additionally, 26% of all U.S. children will experience or witness a traumatic incident before turning 4 years old.
Likewise, children 6 years old and younger can experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which might include re-experiencing distress through flashbacks and nightmares; avoidance of people, places, and activities related to a traumatic incident; emotional numbness; and increased arousal through feeling jumpy or being easily irritated, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
“Because of what’s happened to you, because of what you’ve experienced, your body may be making more stress hormones than the average person,” Nadine Burke Harris, pediatrician and director of the Center for Youth Wellness, told Teen Vogue.
A previous traumatic incident can haunt your body later in life in different ways due to abnormally high rates of stress. Teen Vogue spoke with Burke Harris, who also wrote The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, about how previous traumatic incidents can impact long-term physical health.
She explained that typically we associate sleeping problems, anxiety, and depression with teens who endure trauma, but she stressed that some teens who’ve experienced trauma “don’t have any of these symptoms at all.”
“Sometimes [teens will] have abdominal pain, like stomach ache, or headache, or they’ll be getting sick really frequently,” she said. “That’s also something to watch out for. It can be a sign that your body is internalizing the stress — it’s literally getting under your skin and getting [you] sick.”
Oftentimes teenagers — just like adults — can take out their stress on themselves through destructive behaviors such as “drinking, or smoking, or cutting, or other ways of hurting themselves.” But fortunately, since teenagers are coming into their own, they have the opportunity to make decisions for themselves, which can mean being proactive toward their own caregiving.
“The cool thing about teens is that it’s really a time where even if you’ve grown up with a crappy situation, it’s a time when you really start to be able to choose your own destiny and to do things to support yourself,” she said. “It really starts with valuing yourself and doing that self-care. Teenagers tend to doubt themselves, but that’s one of the most important things.”
In The Deepest Well, Burke Harris emphasized the importance of managing sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, mental health, and relationships in those with a history of trauma. By taking a proactive approach to all six, teens can better cope with their past trauma.
“Doing things like downloading the Headspace app on your phone and doing that meditation once or twice a day to help you be able to regulate your system better, and to help you be able to notice when your stress response is overactive,” she said. “If you’re into sports, joining a team and doing that regular exercise, all of those things are really healing.”
If you have a loved one who is suffering from the aftermath of a traumatic incident, it is incredibly important to cherish and develop a trustworthy, earnest connection with that loved one. Healthy relationships are crucial for healing from trauma — and that’s backed by science.
“Even if it’s just one person — even if it’s a coach, or a counselor, or an aunt or uncle or grandparent or teacher — whoever that person is that you can really trust, who can be a source of a really healthy relationship for you, especially in the teenage years, is so critical,” Burke Harris said.
These relationships can oftentimes be the gateway to seeking professional care, such as counseling and psychiatric care. But those genuine, trust-based relationships can only happen if we are combating stigma at the same time.
“We have to make it okay for people to talk about these issues,” she stresses. “We have to make it okay to talk about trauma and adversity and what we’re going through and to ask for help. I think everyone can participate in this by talking about it, posting on social media, and being an active part of reducing the stigma around trauma and adversity.”
One way to combat this stigma is through #TalkingAboutIt, which was created by writer Sammy Nickalls to encourage all of us to talk about “it” (meaning mental health), even on our worst days. And, of course, we don’t have to just talk about it online — we can open conversations with our loved ones in our everyday lives.
“For a really long time, many of the effects of trauma on health and development and life really weren’t recognized,” Burke Harris says. “We weren’t talking about it. What feels pretty amazing and exciting to me is, I think this generation is going to break the cycle on that.”
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