Recently in an online community dedicated to the discussion of trauma, I came across a comment that I’ve heard many times before. The gist was, “Whenever people find out I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they assume I must be a combat veteran.”
Now, it’s true that way too many soldiers end up with PTSD. And it’s true that we can thank soldiers for the fact that PTSD was ever taken seriously enough to study in the first place. But almost twice as many women succumb to PTSD than men, and only a relatively small number of these women are soldiers. Most, in fact, are survivors of child abuse. And while that might not surprise you, here’s something that might: Even among soldiers, child abuse may lie at the root of PTSD, as this study suggests:
This makes perfect sense, of course, when we consider how the brain develops. We are born to connect with other people, and it’s through nurturing interactions early in life that our self-regulatory systems—including fear and stress circuitry—are calibrated.
Considering the far-reaching effects of our first experiences with caretakers, we can see why neglect counts as trauma alongside physical and sexual abuse, and we can also see why adults who have been abused as children are so much more vulnerable to stress than others.
This vulnerability to stress can lead to a host of mental health challenges. But, here’s a duh! moment: The brain controls processes in the body as well as thinking processes, right? So how is it we’ve managed for so long to overlook the fact that harmful effects of abuse in childhood are not confined to mental health issues? We’re only just beginning to acknowledge that we can’t really separate notions of the biological, the psychological, and the social aspects of human well-being. So, what does child abuse do to the body? Not only does developmental stress accelerate aging,
but it also makes us vulnerable to cancer,
as well as cardiovascular problems. In men who have been abused as children, this tends to be seen in an increased risk for heart attack,
while in women, it’s high blood pressure, poor cholesterol levels, and metabolic issues like diabetes.
PTSD is a complex disorder, and the costs to human potential and national budgets are equally devastating. And child abuse is a major contributor to PTSD, for soldiers as well as civilians. With that in mind, perhaps when we read studies like the next one, we’ll remember that it isn’t only the soldiering that that led to these findings, but life before soldiering too.
And instead of asking civilians with PTSD whether they’re veterans, maybe we’ll start asking veterans whether they’re survivors of developmental trauma. Or maybe we’ll just offer them the nurturing support and friendship they need to work through the healing process, instead of making assumptions about them. Hey—It could happen!
On the bright side, good relationships later in life can help repair the effects of abuse.
And while some relationships will certainly have challenges, it is well worth the time to find support for them.