If Stress Is Bad For Your Health, Trauma Is Really Bad

Here’s the abstract from an article, “Psychological Trauma and Physical Health: A Psychoneuroimmunology Approach to Etiology of Negative Health Effects and Possible Interventions” (2009) by Kathleen Kendall-Tackett published in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, and Policy. Quite a mouthful! What it means is: “Trauma Is Bad For Your Health”. You could also read it as “Stress Is Bad For Your Health” — keeping in mind that trauma is an extreme form of long-term stress. Sometimes an abstract (the short version of a scientific article) says so much. I’ve put some of the key points in bold, since I know you are busy.

People who have experienced traumatic events have higher rates than the general population of a wide range of serious and life-threatening illnesses including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, and cancer. An important question, for both researchers and clinicians, is why this occurs. Researchers have discovered that traumatic events dysregulate the hypothalamic pituitary-adrenal axis and sympathetic nervous system. More recently, research from the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) suggests that traumatic life events can lead to health problems through dysregulation of another key system: the inflammatory response. Prior trauma “primes” the inflammatory response system so that it reacts more rapidly to subsequent life stressors. Elevated inflammation has an etiologic role in many chronic illnesses. Recent PNI studies also suggest some interventions that can serve as adjuncts to traditional trauma treatment. These treatments include long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, exercise, and sleep interventions. Each of these interventions downregulates inflammation, which will likely halt the progression to chronic disease for some trauma survivors.

The take-home point, if you will, is not just that stress is bad, but the way that it is bad. We’ve known for some time that stress activates the adrenal system, and that leads to poor health outcomes. But aggravating the inflammatory response is a new wrinkle. As I understand it, the inflammatory response is a key player in the cause of both heart disease and cancer, and a lot of research is going into understanding what makes it tick. That said, if you can head the inflammatory response off at the pass, reduce its activity before it starts — that should reduce your risk of a whole range of health conditions. Exercise and diet can reduce your risk.

And if you have traumatic stress — then potentially you open yourself up to all kinds of health problems. The good news is that traumatic stress can be treated effectively.



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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

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