Psychological consequences of trauma were first seen in veterans of war and described in the literature as shell shock. By 1980, the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which guides healthcare practitioners with diagnosis, treatment, and reimbursement. For years we have been studying thepsychological changes that are the sequelae of childhood trauma. These long-term consequences include a higher incidence of depression, intrusive flashback memories, hypervigilance, maladaptive coping skills, dysfunctional social skills, and an overactive stress response. Research examining the more holistic effect of trauma has exploded due to recent events, such as 9/11, terrorism, and traumatized troops returning from war.
As holistic nurses, we understand that even when the effect seems to be psychological, social or biology is also influenced. The mind and body interact on every level. The ripple effect of early childhood trauma has more than psychological effects. Biology of the brain and immune function are influenced. The child is forever changed. Here we examine the influence of childhood sexual abuse on the long-term health and the nursing care of adult survivors.
Walter Cannon first described the fight-or-flight response in 1914 as the complex physiological response that prepares the body for fighting or fleeing. The sympathetic nervous system responds to a stressor, suppressing the calming effects of the parasympathetic system. The hypothalamus in the brain secretes hormones that in turn influence the kidneys and the brain. The cascade of chemicals has a ripple effect on many systems, including the respiratory, gastric, cardiovascular, endocrine, renal, and immune. A major part of the brain/hormone/immune interaction, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, becomes involved and further influences physical and psychological functioning.
Adrenocorticotropic hormone is released from the brain and anti-inflammatory steroids such as cortisol suppress the immune system. Ability for healing and even normal cell maintenance is reduced. With altered immune cell levels, the body has increased inflammation, susceptibility to infection, allergic response, and cell mutation. Natural killer cells, for example, whose job it is to correct the cell mutation of cancer, diminish in number. The effect is cumulative: The longer the stress is perceived, the greater the severity of imbalance.
Early trauma changes the brain
When trauma and stress happen early in life, the effects are far more profound and long-lasting. Biological brain development is influenced by genetics, nutrition, social interaction, and experiences. Almost no new brain neurons are formed after birth. There is, instead, a constant rewiring of the existing neurons. New connections are made and old connections are disconnected. This understanding of the plasticity of the brain is what drives rehabilitation after a stroke.
Trauma and early negative experiences affect the development and even structure of the brain. Women who were sexually abused as children show significantly diminished brain volume on brain scans. The structure and function of the hippocampus (responsible for learning and memory), for example, are different when compared to individuals who weren’t traumatized. The medial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and other neural circuitry of the brain are also changed. The brain shows a sustained and pervasive stress response as the child grows, and this has a long-term effect on immune function. Brain wave patterns change. The brain’s response to inflammation and healing is altered. Neurotransmitter levels adapt to these new abnormal levels. The biological changes in the brain are even more profound if the abuse was early, pervasive, or severe.
Long-term health issues for survivors of childhood sexual abuse
The range of potential adverse health outcomes is extensive and childhood sexual abuse can be seen as a risk factor for many diseases. Those who experienced childhood sexual abuse are one and a half times more likely to report serious health problems.
The figure below shows common long-term sequelae of childhood sexual abuse. Because of the holistic nature, it’s difficult to categorize the conditions into traditional systems or paradigms.
Psychological issues for this population often include anxiety, poor self-esteem, dysfunctional relationships, eating disorders, and PTSD. PTSD results from a threat to self or others accompanied by “intense fear, horror, or helplessness,” according to the Veteran’s Administration National Center for PTSD. Maladaptive coping such as denial is overused. Those with a history of childhood sexual abuse have increased reports of fear, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, aggression, anger, hostility, poor self-esteem, and suicide attempts. Higher rates of depression are reported. Depression has also been shown to be associated with impaired immune functioning. Increased cytokines (inflammation) and cortisol (stress) have been identified as mechanisms by which immune system function is impaired and related to depression. Incidences of dysfunctional relationships, intimate partner violence, and self-destructive behavior are higher.
Higher rates of some physical diseases, such as sexually transmitted diseases, hepatitis, or pelvic inflammatory disease, can be attributed to the common behavioral issues for this population that include promiscuity, substance abuse, and/or sexual dysfunction. But for those traumatized early in life, there exists a clear and increased risk of lung disease, ulcers, cardiac disease, diabetes, and cardiac disorders. The high incidence of inflammatory disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis and allergies, is an example of the imbalanced immune system’s overreaction. Prolonged stress and exposure to cortisol, for instance, cause wounds to heal slowly, indicating an underreacting immune system.
The role of childhood sexual abuse in the development of autoimmune disease is worthy of special attention. Trauma in early childhood predisposes the individual to autoimmune diseases in later life. Some of the strongest evidence linking autoimmune disease to childhood trauma is a retrospective study of over 15,000 adults who were enrolled in the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. Autoimmune disease processes commonly seen in this population are fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, type 1 diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. Patients with a history of childhood sexual abuse may develop fibromyalgia and use outpatient health services and analgesics more frequently. Adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse also report increased pain associated with other medical conditions. Cardiovascular diseases, such as arteriosclerosis and ischemic heart disease, are directly related to maladaptive immune function and inflammation and occur in higher rates in adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It’s important to remember that any of these disease processes can occur in people who weren’t sexually abused as children.
Healing is possible
Healing from childhood sexual abuse is possible at any point in life. Nurses should be familiar with local providers for counseling, stress-management training, and holistic care of these survivors. Nurses should take an active role in advocating for the client in the referral process when the history of childhood sexual abuse is identified. The human cost of healing survivors of childhood sexual abuse is still far greater than the cost of preventing childhood sexual abuse from occurring in the first place. Being sexually abused as a child has a lifelong impact on health. Once again we are reminded that an awareness of the holistic perspective is vital for competent nursing care of victims of childhood sexual abuse.
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