The Effect of Stress from Childhood Abuse

The physical damage may mend and heal, but the emotional reaction often remains.

Posted Jul 26, 2017

 Ocus Focus/BigStock
Source: Ocus Focus/BigStock

One of the biggest culprits, I believe, of lingering physical effects from childhood abuse is stress. Children who have been abused experience physical and emotional distress and trauma.

The physical damage may mend and heal, but the emotional reaction to this trauma often remains active and forceful. Fear, uncertainty, anger, and frustration can be the by-products of abuse that don’t fade but instead build over time. A person in constant stress mode sees danger everywhere and security nowhere. A person under stress is a reactive person who may not wait to consider the full situation—a condition of shoot first, ask questions later.

Do you try to forget the abuse you suffered as a child because of how it makes you feel? Does thinking about those times cause your heart to race, your palms to sweat, your hands or feet to tingle? Do you find yourself going into high-stress mode even when others don’t exhibit the same level of concern? Do you sometimes feel yourself threatened by circumstances or other people? Once the danger has passed, is it harder for you than for others to come down from that heightened sense of alert? Does it feel better or safer to be on alert rather than relaxed?

The body’s response to stress is an all-hands-on-deck call to action for physical systems, meant as a short-term answer to danger. Living in stress-mode for the long term creates a physical drain on those systems, which can lead to physiological difficulties later in life.

Working with survivors of childhood abuse, I’ve seen physical conditions I believe are derived, in part if not all, from a continuation of heightened stress. This belief, which I’ve developed over thirty-plus years of counseling, appears validated by research.

A recent UCLA study published online in 2013 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that “searchers suggest that toxic childhood stress alters neural responses to stress, boosting the emotional and physical arousal to threat and making it more difficult for that reaction to be shut off.”[1]

Children who have been abused enter a state of stress and distress, which changes the way their brains react to circumstances and stresses later in life. They become hardwired to hyper-react and have a difficult time standing down.

The American Psychological Association lists a cornucopia of negative health effects due to stress, such as muscle tension; headaches; asthma attacks; rapid breathing leading to panic at- tacks; cardiovascular problems; hypertension; inflammation of the circulatory system; higher cholesterol levels; increased epinephrine and cortisol levels; adrenal fatigue; insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes; heartburn; gastrointestinal distress; irritable bowel syndrome; erectile dysfunction; irregular, painful, or absent menstruation; increased menopausal hot flashes; and reduction in sexual libido.[2]

Because of the close connection between what we experience and how we feel, those who have survived childhood abuse need to be aware of the potential for health problems today to be linked to abuse from the past.

The cost of childhood abuse can be significant, affecting emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual aspects of a person’s life. The stress triggered by the trauma can become an engrained response into adulthood, leaving a legacy of distress, distrust, and fear.

Researchers are diving deeper into the wide-ranging negative consequences of childhood abuse and improving our collective understanding. In some ways, adding to the list of negative outcomes can be discouraging. However, I have witnessed people finally uncover a reason for why they think, feel, and act, especially in harmful ways. Knowing the reasons gives a starting point for finding a solution.

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 36 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.

[1] University of California–Los Angeles Health Sciences, “Abuse, Lack of Parental Warmth in Childhood Linked to Multiple Health Risks in Adults,”Science Daily, accessed January 12, 2017, /2013/09/130926205005.htm.

[2] “Stress Effect on the Body,” American Psychological Association, accessed January 12, 2017,

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