Childhood Trauma & Mental Health


Nadine Burke Harris is a pediatrician trained in public health who began studying the affects of childhood trauma after noticing a dramatic increase in children being referred to her for ADHD.  Her investigations uncovered that people exposed to childhood trauma – including physical or sexual abuse, having a parent with mental illness, growing up in a household with a parents who abuses substances, being neglected, or witnessing violence – dramatically increased the likelihood that a person would experience heart disease, cancer, suicidal urges, and a reduced life expectancy.

Further research showed that exposure to early childhood trauma impacted development in specific areas of the brain.  These include the pre-frontal cortex (which is responsible for judgment and rational thinking and helps with moderating impulsive behaviors), the limbic system (which activates our fear response), and brain structures affected by substances.

Exposure to early childhood trauma resulted in chronic exposure to the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline.  When people are unable to release these chemicals through the fight-or-flight response, the constant exposure to these hormones also created shifts in the body’s immune system.

Many people are now arguing that mental illness at least partially involves the immune system (and some are suggesting that mental illness is actually CAUSED by inflammation in the immune system). Thus, one can hypothesize that effective treatment of people exposed to trauma should:

  1. Counteract the stress response and activate the relaxation response via the parasympathetic nervous system to reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels
  2. Incorporate practices that strengthen the immune system (i.e., sufficient sleep, limiting access to processed food, getting regular exercise, reducing or eliminating substance use, drinking adequate amounts of water, limiting chronic stress, eating whole foods and taking vitamin supplements as necessary, etc.)
  3. Activate the pre-frontal cortex through practices like psychotherapy, goal-directed activity, and learning activities.
  4. Take active steps to reduce inflammation in the body (via meditation, healthy diet, treatment and monitoring of existing health concerns, massage, chiropractic or sports medicine, etc.)
  5. Utilize Mindfulness practices to monitor impulsivity, learn to moderate the fight-or-flight response, and reduce reactivity to the amygdala