The Painful Past of Stress and Child Abuse

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The aftermath of child abuse is devastating. Longitudinal research published in the Journal of Child Abuse and Neglect indicated that as many as 80% of child abuse survivors by age 21 had acquired a mental condition.


Recently, researchers have found another alarming effect of childhood trauma: those who were mistreated or neglected as kids are more likely to develop major medical ailments as adults. In a 1998 study conducted jointly by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente’s Drs. Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda, it was found that children who experienced verbal or physical abuse, parental separation, or other severe adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) were more likely to develop cancer, heart disease, and depression later in life.

The Painful Past of Stress and Child Abuse
The Painful Past of Stress and Child Abuse

According to a subsequent research by the National Clearinghouse on Child Misuse and Neglect, high-risk habits like smoking, alcohol abuse, and obesity might be the consequence of underlying psychological issues caused by abuse and neglect. It is speculated in the paper that this may then pave the way for the development of disorders like cancer and obesity.


Assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University and co-author of several research on childhood trauma and stress, Linda Luecken, PhD, says, “The field [of mental health] is coming to grasp that child abuse may have physical impacts that persist long beyond bumps and bruises.”

Destructive in every way

Abuse of children may take various forms, including physical punishment, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and the withholding or withdrawal of love and affection.

The brain of a kid who has been abused, in whatever form that abuse may have taken, may be rewired permanently. Children who are not shown enough love from an early age are more likely to have elevated cortisol levels. Even in babies, physical punishment may stimulate this hormone.

A child’s physical and mental health may take a serious hit from chronically high levels of cortisol, but a single spike here and there is unlikely to cause any problems. Abused children may show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in extreme circumstances (PTSD).

There is mounting evidence that adults who were themselves mistreated or neglected as children may be more vulnerable to the effects of stress, as Luecken described in Clinical Psychology Review. Chronic stress, such as that which occurs in abusive relationships, has been shown to alter the brain’s wiring in such a way that even mild stress causes a “hyperarousal” response, which in turn can cause hyperactivity, sleep disturbances, anxiety, and an increased propensity to exhibit hyperactivity, conduct disorders, and memory and learning difficulties. Adults who experienced childhood maltreatment are more likely to have difficulty calming down in the face of danger, whether actual or imagined.

All sorts of stress-related disorders, such as cardiovascular illness, cancer, and infectious diseases, may be more likely among people with this sensitivity to stress. According to research published in the Clinical Journal of Pain by Luecken and colleagues, persons with a history of childhood maltreatment are more likely to have chronic pain, a condition that may be exacerbated by stress.

Adolescents and adults who suffered childhood abuse may have both physical and mental health issues. Surviving abuse may leave a person feeling hopeless and low in self-esteem, both of which can lead to dangerous decisions. Researchers in the Philadelphia region discovered that males who had experienced abuse as youngsters were five times more likely to have used injection medications. Their findings were reported in the Annals of Internal Medicine. They started engaging in sexual activity a full year before most adolescent guys do. These actions may result in more complications, such as STDs or substance abuse.

Trauma mitigation

Fortunately, kids can be surprisingly tough. Abuse survivors may make a full recovery with the support of their own strengths, such as intelligence, optimism, creativity, humour, self-esteem, and independence. If a kid has the very worst start in life, but subsequently receives love and care, they may still grow up to have a positive view. Adopted children who had been severely mistreated in foreign institutions sometimes make spectacular recoveries, according to Luecken.

A child’s mental well-being is more important than having a picture-perfect upbringing or flawless parents. “One healthy relationship with a responsible adult is all that’s needed, in my opinion. A child’s sense of security and worth stemming from even one strong relationship may buffer the negative effects of stress “As Luecken explains.

Other positive childhood experiences (PCEs), such as participating on a sports team, having the support of close friends and family, and being actively involved in the community, have been shown to reduce or even reverse the negative effects of adversity experienced in childhood (ACEs) in studies conducted at Tufts University and elsewhere.

Even adults who suffered abuse as children have options for safeguarding themselves against stress. Their outlook on life and themselves may be altered with the aid of a trained counsellor. Luecken argues that a healthy diet, regular exercise, and good medical care may mitigate the effects of stress in a variety of ways.

Researchers like Luecken want to know why child maltreatment is so harmful to kids’ bodies. Finding these solutions may help adult survivors overcome their prior trauma and live fulfilling lives. And for the millions of abused and neglected kids who are born each year, this kind of study might mean a brighter future.


Woolston, C. (2022, May 30). Stress and child abuse: The past hurts. HealthDay. Retrieved November 14, 2022, from

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