Childhood Trauma And Immunity

  • 4 mins read
  • Wellbeing
  • Written by: Reshma Pathare

Childhood is said to be one of the best phases in life, wherein one’s brain and mind are not mature enough to understand the complex nitty-gritty of human behavior and social happenings. It is this factor that renders children innocent – a quality that separates them from adults and adulthood.

However, on the flip side, it is this very factor that can cause far-reaching negative effects on a child’s brain development and immune system if he/she is exposed to mental or physical trauma or stress beyond a certain level.

  • According to a survey conducted a few years back, 77.5% of Southeast Asian adolescents in America are witnesses to physical aggression or community violence. 43.7% of these children have been victims of the same, at least once during their lifetime.
  • UNICEF research shows that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has had a deep impact on children. They’re suffering from isolation, fear, uncertainty, and anxiety.
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) including neglect, abuse, poverty, and separation lead to three out of five costliest health problems in adults.

Our bodies and minds are equipped to deal with a certain amount of stress. Human beings start producing cortisol from their 6th week in the mother’s womb.

Cortisol is a hormone that helps regulate our blood pressure, immune functions, and anti-inflammatory processes. It proves that nature sends us well-equipped to deal with stress that we’re bound to face in daily life, even as children.

But chronic stress and heavy-duty trauma can render a child vulnerable to long-term health problems, auto-immune diseases, and stunted mental and physical development.

What constitutes trauma?

As seen above, there’s a difference between regular stress and traumatic stress. Trying to finish an exam paper on time or trying to get an angry friend to talk to oneself again are small stressors that a child’s body and mind are perfectly capable of dealing with.

The larger problems stem from larger and long-standing issues that a child may witness or experience by themself in/her childhood. Being caught amid abusive relationships, being a victim of bullying or sexual abuse, facing poverty, living in unsafe or violent conditions, seeing one’s parents undergo divorce, witnessing sudden deaths and/or violent deaths in the family, being displaced by even larger problems like war, terrorism, or natural calamities are some of the important causes of trauma in children.

What’s worse is that such stressors leave a deep, lasting impression on the child’s mind, thus hindering their brain development and impacting their immunity adversely.

How trauma in kids affects the brain

The human brain is a fascinating organ, layered as it is with neurons, blood vessels, glial cells, water, and protein among other things. We’re born with more than 100 billion neurons i.e., brain nerve cells, which interconnect with each other in an extremely complex matrix to help develop our speech, auditory abilities, cognitive abilities, visual abilities, and so on. Little wonder then, that neuron are called the ‘building blocks of the human brain.

These building blocks start building interconnections when we’re babies, to embark on our brain development. How fast and strong neural pathways develop, depends on the repetition of experiences, which in turn teach the child how to respond. That is what explains showing flashcards or singing songs on a loop to babies helps the development of their brains positively.

However, when a child is exposed to traumatic or stressful events like a baby or infant, only those pathways that respond to trauma are used the most, thus reducing the usage of other neural pathways. This, in turn, can cause cognitive delays, attachment issues, and impaired emotional responses among other problems.

The only positive aspect to this is that an infant’s or baby’s brain is also most receptive to change; hence, it is easier to rectify the negative effects faster than later.

If the stress and trauma start or continue in the early school years up to pre-puberty, it can adversely affect the child’s learning abilities and social relationships.

In this stage, the brain is in the process of picking & choosing the neural pathways it requires and fortifying them for the best results. But, exposure to trauma can cause hindrance in the development that these neural pathways are meant for.

Interestingly, these affected children will be more prone to externalizing their response by showing rebellious behavior, as opposed to younger kids who will internalize it and become withdrawn.

If a child is traumatized during adolescence, the child’s ability to concentrate, use logical thinking abilities, and advanced thought processes are affected adversely. Coupled with the hormonal upsurge in adolescence, this may make the child more prone than others to take irrational risks, indulge in nefarious activities, and undertake substance abuse.

Long-term effects of negative childhood experiences

Negative childhood experiences and mental health have a close direct relation. As explained above, if the trauma is rectified in infancy, it is alright; but the more it is allowed to linger, especially in the pre-puberty and puberty stages, it is bound to have far-reaching effects on the child’s adult life as well.

  • People who face trauma in their childhood can grow up harboring somatic symptom disorders wherein they feel excessively and irrationally worried about their health and constantly feel pain in some part of the body, headaches, fatigue, diarrhea, incontinence, or depression.
  • In fact, women are 10 times more prone to somatic disorders than men. Fear psychosis, schizophrenia, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD are some of the other serious fallouts of childhood trauma in adulthood. PTSD traps the child in a vicious cycle in his/her adulthood, making him/her relive the horrifying memories in wakefulness and dreams.
  • Trauma in kids can lead them to have serious problems in learning new skills, focussing/concentrating, developing language skills, and orienting themselves to the concept of time & space.
  • They may grow up to be adults with impaired communication and a sense of boundaries in relationships.
  • Irrationally impulsive behavior, eating disorders, sleep disorders, and overt aggression are some of the other problems that underline the theory that childhood experiences do affect adulthood.

Understanding immunity

Human beings are fortified with immunity to protect them from contracting infections and diseases. Our immune system comprises a complex network of proteins and cells that fight against any bacterial or viral infection, or any foreign substance entering the body.

We have three types of immunity: Innate immunity, Adaptive immunity, Passive immunity

  • Innate/natural immunity is the one that we are born with. It is a natural protective sheath given to us that keeps out infections and germs. The immune system recognizes potentially dangerous foreign bodies and strives to keep them out.
  • Adaptive/active immunity is developed when we get exposed to diseases or are vaccinated to be immunized against them. This immunity keeps developing through the course of our life; albeit, the process slows down in old age.
  • Passive immunity is borrowed immunity that we get from an external source. E.g., antibodies in a mother’s breast milk are a good example of passive immunity. The effects of this last for a short time only.

Now, just like our brains, our immunity also develops as we grow up. We’re born with a passive immunity that we get from the mother’s placenta in the womb, the bacteria in her vagina as she delivers the baby, and then via antibodies in her breast milk.

While these factors help fortify the baby to remain healthy in the womb and for a few months after coming into the world, it is a temporary solution. The child’s innate immunity starts building up slowly and steadily through the growth years through a combination of breastfeeding for a couple of years, timely vaccination, and a healthy diet.

Childhood trauma and immunity – Understanding the connection

Our immune system works in multiple ways to protect our bodies:

  1. Whenever it senses the body being invaded by antigens (harmful foreign substances), the immune system works to get rid of them.
  2. It also works to create antibodies that latch into the antigens to prevent the body from getting affected by the same germs again.
  3. The immune system kills the antigens that can fatally harm the body.

Stress and childhood: In childhood, our innate immunity is not fully developed as it is. Add to that, if the child is burdened with excessive, long-lasting stress resulting from traumatic experiences, their immune response gets immensely hampered, leading to chronic health problems or auto-immune diseases in kids, or their adulthood.

  • Stress produces cortisol which helps the body regulate blood pressure and control inflammation. However, chronic and unregulated stress keeps the cortisol pumping, thus making the body used to it and making it prone to inflammation.
  • Stress also lessens the lymphocytes in our system, thus making our bodies more prone to infections. Depression and anxiety that accompany chronic, high-level stress can lead to inflammation which the overburdened immune system is unable to prevent.

Chronic inflammation increases the risk for autoimmune diseases. This includes Inflammatory Bowel Disease, psoriasis, arthritis, and lupus among others. It also puts the person at risk for severe cardiovascular problems, diabetes, chronic ulcers, insomnia, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease among others.

While these effects are seen in both, adults and children, the intensity and speed of the effects are more in children due to their immune systems not being fully mature.

Scarily so, effects of trauma experienced in childhood are known to linger on even 20-25 years later, increasing the markers of inflammation at that time. The same happens due to psychiatric disorders that a child is saddled with due to exposure to traumatic events early on. Nightmares and bodily reactions like a sudden spurt of rashes are some of the other ways in which emotional trauma affects the immunity of children.

How to deal with past trauma?

The main problem of letting stress or trauma linger is that, the longer it remains in the system, the higher it increases the risk of hampering the child’s brain development and immunity, apart from exposing him/her to serious health risks in adulthood.

Hence, parents or caregivers should ideally not let a child get exposed to excessively traumatic situations as far as they can help it.

  • Avoid quarreling in front of a child.
  • Do not display physical abuse or violence.
  • Do not expose them to abusive behaviors on-screen or in families etc.
  • Do not stress their tiny brains by putting impossible targets, or sowing manipulative ideas.

In situations like the pandemic or war, where children get stressed due to unavoidable factors, elders should be on the lookout for tell-tale physical and mental/behavioral symptoms. These may include:

  • Somatic symptoms like unexplained pain, sudden bursts of diarrhea, and incontinence
  • Bedwetting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unexplained headaches
  • Inability to sleep even when tired
  • Bouts of crying or whining
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • Fear of the dark, fear of being alone with someone or at someplace
  • Clinginess
  • Excessive aggression, bursts of violent anger

To raise a child stress-free or to remove the ingrained stress as soon as possible, parents/caregivers have to lead by example. They must provide children with a secure and happy environment.

  • Do not let your stresses pile onto their immature brains. The reaction can be more fatal than you can imagine.
  • Instead, let them see you managing your stresses in a positive, proactive manner by indulging in a hobby, sport, yoga, or practicing techniques like meditation and mindfulness.
  • Keep an eye out for sudden changes in their physical or emotional patterns. Keep a healthy conversation to understand if they are being bullied, abused, molested, troubled, or are feeling fearful of anything.
  • Do not dismiss their fears as silly or unfounded without hearing them patiently. A child might just shut off if that happens, and it may just lead to the problem getting compounded to very serious consequences.
  • While we all want our children to do well in life, teaching them core values or making them see the importance of studies should not be done through yelling, screaming, and corporal punishment. It can scar a child irreversibly. Instead, choose positive methods to encourage and teach the child, which in turn will also help develop their self-worth and confidence.
  • Do not thrust life-changing decisions on a child and expect them to take them passively. Talk to them if you’re moving homes, changing cities, or are taking a divorce. Sudden shifts can be very traumatic for them.
  • Death of a pet, friend, or loved one can be very difficult for children to bear. Be their firm support when they encounter these or other traumatic events. Encourage them to talk, write down their feelings, or express their grief instead of internalizing it.
  • Do not be in denial if your child is clearly at a stage where he/she requires counseling or psychiatric therapy. There is no shame in going to a mental health practitioner; in fact, it should be done at the earliest.

Conclusion

Stress and trauma are bad for everyone, but especially so for children because their brains and immune systems are not fully developed to bear the brunt of those negative events.

Wounds afflicted on a person’s mind in childhood not just take a long time to heal, but also hinder their mental and physical development and leave them with serious ailments in later life.

These are just a few ways in which children can be protected; and protected, they must be! For, children are the future; and if our future has to be bright, it should stand on the foundation of the next generation that is physically, mentally, and behaviourally healthy – not scarred or suffering from emotional or physical trauma of any kind.

Read more for ways to improve your immune system.

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