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5 Ways a Painful Past Influences Chronic Pain

Identifying the impact of trauma later in life.

Source: microcosmos/Shutterstock

“Our biography becomes our biology,” is a phrase coined by the journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa.

As she attempted to understand the origin of her struggles with chronic illness and pain, she learned that adverse childhood events leave a permanent imprint on our brain and immune system. This, in turn, affects our ability to adapt to change, stress, and illness over the course of our lives.

While childhood trauma does not cause chronic pain in adulthood, there is a link between the two. To reduce the impact that adverse childhood events have on chronic pain, we first need to understand how stress and trauma influence brain development. More specifically, we must recognize how a painful past primes the central nervous system to overreact to sensory input.

The Consequences of Childhood Stress

Adverse events in a child’s life take on many forms. Sexual and verbal abuse, divorce or loss of a parent, family dysfunction, humiliation, neglect, alcoholism, and parental criminal behavior are all impactful occurrences that cause significant changes to a child’s mental and physical health. These disturbances follow the child into adult life and lead to health complications, mental health problems, and interestingly—an increased perception of pain.

Our awareness of this correlation has grown enormously thanks to research focused on childhood stress, and particularly through the use of a ten-item questionnaire called the Adverse Childhood Events (ACE) scale. By scoring painful childhood experiences, this assessment is quite telling for a number of predicted health outcomes. The following are five areas of emotional and physical health impacted by chronic childhood stress that can affect a person’s experience of pain:

  1. Compromised Immune System. Instead of protecting us, a compromised immune system turns against the body, causing inflammation, pain, and disruption of normal bodily processes. For every single point increase on the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) scale, a person is 20% more likely to be hospitalized for an autoimmune disorder. And a malfunctioning immune system—with its inflammation of muscles, tendons, joints, and other bodily tissues—translates into more pain.
  2. Disrupted Sleep — An ACE score of three leads to twice the risk of having sleep problems; a score of five increases the risk by three. Witnessing domestic abuse and/or experiencing physical or sexual abuse themselves, contributes the most to sleep disturbances later on. Those that suffer from pain often struggle with sleep. Many assume that their disrupted sleep is solely due to pain, when in fact the brain’s difficulty in regulating sleep may be related to a history of childhood stress instead.
  3. Increased Mental Health Problems. When a person has an ACE score of four or more, they have a much greater chance of developing a mental health problem—specifically anxiety and depression. And as emotional distress increases from anxiety and depression, so does the perception of pain.
  4. Concentration and Attention Problems. Chronic stress negatively impacts the brain structures that regulate attention, concentration, and memory. For children with an ACE score of four or higher, problems with attention, concentration, and hyperactivity are four times as likely. Concentration and attention are mental processes with which fibromyalgia patients often have trouble. With 60% or more of these patients reporting a personal history of physical or sexual abuse, it supports the possibility of these early childhood experiences contributing to detrimental brain changes.
  5. Increased Perception of Danger. Our brains come equipped with a “default-mode network” (DMN) that allows for rest. In this mode, our brain sorts out what is relevant and/or deserving of our attention and plans for what needs to happen next. Chronic stress and trauma during childhood disrupt the functioning of this default-mode network, weakening the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. This dysregulation helps to explain why a person with a history of childhood trauma often perceives non-stressful (and mildly stressful) changes in their life as a threat. Misinterpreting neutral events as threatening triggers a heightened physical arousal—otherwise known as anxiety. What’s worse, an overly reactive brain will respond to vibration, touch, tissue damage, heat, inflammation, and pressure by producing pain that is out of proportion to the actual threat.

Calming the Nervous System

When managing the impact of chronic childhood stress and pain, the goal is to calm the reactive central nervous system. Mindfulness and meditation can play an important role in this process by strengthening the connections throughout the brain, stimulating neuronal growth, and quieting the amygdala—the reactive, emotional center of the brain. Learning to let go of unwanted thoughts and feelings, staying present, and moving towards what is important are helpful psychological approaches for managing distress.

Life experiences do indeed change biology. This means that the damage from our past is not permanent. More importantly, we are always free to create new experiences that restore health and balance.

The Next Step

To learn more about the impact of adverse childhood events in your own life, take a few minutes to complete a free online survey called, “The Adverse Childhood Events Survey.” You can also contact the Association for Contextual Behavior Science to get information about psychological flexibility, a helpful skill for handling difficult life experiences.

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