How Untreated Trauma Informs Health Complications

Trauma informs physical health

Past traumas inform our health in the present-day.[1] If you’ve been through a traumatic experience and have not already sought professional help to resolve it, then that unresolved trauma can continue to live in your body, festering, to later manifest as mild to severe physical or psychological illness. This highlights the importance of seeking treatment if you believe that you are living with trauma.

What is Trauma?

 Traumatic incidents are those which make you feel as though your life is in danger or that you will be seriously harmed.[2] Such beliefs do not have to be real to be traumatic – even the perception of one’s life being in danger or that physical or psychological harm will come to them can lead to trauma.

A traumatic event can be anything from childhood physical and emotional abuse or neglect to exposure to combat to being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Childhood abuse in particular is one of the impactful and long-lasting adverse experiences a person can go through as it is a time in our lives when we are at our most vulnerable. As children, our brains are still in early development[3] and every day we learn more about ourselves and the world around us. Childhood abuse ruptures our sense of safety and causes a range of psychological issues later in life.[4] What often makes childhood abuse such a complex issue to deal with is that it is often perpetrated by a person who should be playing the role of protector, such as a parent, family member, or another caregiver.[5]


Symptoms of Trauma

 Of course, trauma of any kind can be devastating. The symptoms can range from mild to severe and appear gradually, but ultimately lead to a significantly reduced quality of life and diminished physical and psychological well-being. However trauma happens, our responses are typically any of the following:

  • Anxiety – unease, apprehension, worry, increased heart rate, panic, social anxiety, general anxiety, phobias
  • Sleep disturbances – insomnia, vivid dreams, nightmares, and recollection of the traumatic event or events
  • Mood changes – sadness, depression, hopelessness, helplessness
  • Dissociation – fantasising, daydreaming, shut-down, feeling out of one’s body
  • Ruptured autonomy – feeling no control or sense of belonging regarding one’s body
  • Avoidance – avoiding people and places, even thoughts and feelings, that remind a person of their trauma
  • Depression

Health Effects of Trauma

Trauma does not just impact our psychological health. While anxiety, depression, and feelings of low self-esteem and low self-worth are common among trauma survivors[6], other health effects can self-perpetuate and cause further difficulties in a person’s life. Let’s take a look at how trauma can impact our behavioural and physical health.

  • Behavioural Health

Those who have been through trauma and are now suffering from traumatic memories might try to escape their memories and the thoughts and feelings associated with them by engaging in avoidant behaviour.[7] This desire to escape one’s true feelings can lead a person to engage in high-risk behaviour such as excessive alcohol or drug use, avoidance of food, or over-eating.[8] These behaviours are just some of the ways those suffering from trauma may attempt to cope. Trauma can result in significant emotional dysregulation, but these attempts to self-regulate are maladaptive and lead to challenging health issues later on, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, malnourishment, and substance or behavioural addiction.

Substance abuse can be a particularly dangerous behavioural symptom of trauma. Regular use of substances leads to greater tolerance in the body to that substance. This means that more will have to be consumed to achieve the desired effects, increasing the likelihood of dependence and addiction. Once an addiction has developed, we are even more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions. Regular intake of toxic substances wears away at our immune system and leaves us more vulnerable to disease.

  • Physical Health

Trauma can disrupt and diminish our ability to tolerate stress.[9] Due to this inability, the body of a trauma survivor may not react well to stress, and experience a disproportionately heightened stress response even in a mildly stressful situation. This tendency towards a high stress response means that the body is under stress for a prolonged period, meaning that more adrenaline is produced and secreted, the heart comes under more pressure, and the body mobilises for action. This eventually causes wear and tear on the body and leads to inflammation.[10]

Inflammation is associated with many illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases. Trauma, particularly early childhood trauma, damages the function of the inflammatory system[11], which can lead to chronic health problems.


The Science behind Trauma and Poor Health

According to Dr. Patricia Celan, trauma increases the sensitivity of the body’s stress response system, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis).[12] This is involved in the function of both the central nervous system and the endocrine system. The endocrine system is responsible for the production and secretion of hormones such as cortisol, oxytocin, and adrenaline. Trauma heightens our reaction to stress because it promotes the release of cortisol, a major stress-related hormone.[13]

While stress is functional in that it serves to protect us from danger (if we see a lion running toward us then our stress response will mobilise to run), too much cortisol can be toxic to the body and increase our risk of depression and cardiovascular disease.

Trauma damages our health by reducing our ability to recover from stress. A stressful event occurs, and instead of feeling stressed initially and then returning to homeostasis (balance), trauma survivors stay in the stress response for longer than those who are not suffering. This long-term exposure to stress puts individuals at an increased risk of developing anxiety disorders, sleep issues, weight gain, cognitive problems, and depression.

Trauma can also reduce our ability to release oxytocin[14], a major hormone involved in bonding and connection. With lower levels of oxytocin in the brain and body, trauma survivors may find it difficult to lovingly bond and connect with others. This can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation, which themselves can cause even further health issues.[15]


Therapy for Trauma Healing and Mitigation of Trauma Symptoms

 The health effects of trauma can be chronic and lead to disease. Fortunately, healing from trauma is possible. Through an assessment of an individual current state of health and a tailored approach to therapy involving cognitive and somatic approaches, the roots of one’s trauma can be addressed and tools and techniques can be taught and applied to better cope with stressors. If you have been through trauma and are suffering the symptoms today, the fault is not your own. However, healing is a personal responsibility for all of us. Professional help for trauma and its symptoms is available at Khiron House.


If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).



[1] “Past Trauma May Haunt Your Future Health – Harvard Health”. Harvard Health, 2019, Accessed 10 Nov 2020.

[2] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014

[3] “Early Brain Development And Health”. Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, Accessed 10 Nov 2020.

[4] Springer, Kristen W et al. “The long-term health outcomes of childhood abuse. An overview and a call to action.” Journal of general internal medicine vol. 18,10 (2003): 864-70. doi:10.1046/j.1525-1497.2003.20918.x

[5] Runyan, Desmond K. et al. “Child abuse and neglect by parents and other caregivers.” (2002).

[6] Nathanson, Alison M et al. “The Prevalence of Mental Health Disorders in a Community Sample of Female Victims of Intimate Partner Violence.” Partner abuse vol. 3,1 (2012): 59-75. doi:10.1891/1946-6560.3.1.59

[7] Pineles, Suzanne L et al. “Trauma reactivity, avoidant coping, and PTSD symptoms: a moderating relationship?.” Journal of abnormal psychology vol. 120,1 (2011): 240-6. doi:10.1037/a0022123

[8] Pineles, Suzanne L et al. “Trauma reactivity, avoidant coping, and PTSD symptoms: a moderating relationship?.” Journal of abnormal psychology vol. 120,1 (2011): 240-6. doi:10.1037/a0022123

[9] Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (US). Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Health Services. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2014. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 57.) Chapter 3, Understanding the Impact of Trauma. Available from:

[10] Kim, Tammy D et al. “Inflammation in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): A Review of Potential Correlates of PTSD with a Neurological Perspective.” Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 9,2 107. 26 Jan. 2020, doi:10.3390/antiox9020107

[11] Danese, Andrea, and Stephanie J Lewis. “Psychoneuroimmunology of Early-Life Stress: The Hidden Wounds of Childhood Trauma?.” Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology vol. 42,1 (2017): 99-114. doi:10.1038/npp.2016.198

[12] Basile, Lisa Marie. “How Trauma Impacts Your Physical Health”. Endocrineweb, Accessed 10 Nov 2020.

[13] Ranabir, Salam, and K Reetu. “Stress and hormones.” Indian journal of endocrinology and metabolism vol. 15,1 (2011): 18-22. doi:10.4103/2230-8210.77573

[14] Basile, Lisa Marie. “How Trauma Impacts Your Physical Health”. Endocrineweb, Accessed 10 Nov 2020.

[15] “Loneliness And Social Isolation Linked To Serious Health Conditions”. Cdc.Gov, Accessed 10 Nov 2020.