Childhood Trauma and STD Risk

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Trauma during childhood can have life-long effects on health and well-being. Furthermore, it's not only the most severe childhood trauma that affects the quality, and even length, of a person's life. A variety of adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs, can have long-term effects on health. The first study of ACEs looked at seven categories of childhood trauma. These ranged from being sworn at or insulted by adults at home, to physical and sexual abuse, to living with a family member who abused substances or was severely mentally ill. Measured ACEs also included having a household member go to prison or seeing a parent treated violently.

What the study found was shocking. It did not simply show the expected—that severe abuse had long-term consequences. Instead, it showed that there was a dose-response relationship between adverse childhood events and many of the most common causes of death. In other words, the more ACEs a person had experienced (from 0 to 7), the higher their risk of a number of outcomes, including:

  • Low educational achievement
  • Income concerns
  • Unemployment
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Diabetes
  • Mental health concerns
  • Alcoholism or alcohol abuse
  • Liver disease

Childhood trauma, as measured by higher numbers of ACEs, has also been shown to increase the risk of a number of sexual health concerns including:

  • Starting to have sex when younger than average
  • Adolescent pregnancy
  • Sexual violence
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Sexually transmitted diseases

Adverse childhood experiences are incredibly common. In that initial study, more than half of participants had at least one type of exposure. Furthermore, if they had one exposure, they were likely to have more. More than four out of five children who were exposed to one category of abuse or household dysfunction were also exposed to a second. However, only slightly over 6 percent experienced four or more exposures. It was these individuals who were at the greatest risk of a number of outcomes.

How is it that experiences that take place during childhood can affect the rest of a person's life? It appears to mostly have to do with behavior—both conscious and unconscious. That said, it's also possible that there are other, non-behavioral, factors at work. These factors may overlap with behavioral factors and, as such, be difficult to measure. However, research has suggested that adverse childhood experiences could be associated with changes in the immune system that make people more susceptible to disease. They might also be associated with metabolic changes that have been linked to diabetes and other health problems.

Understanding the links between childhood trauma and disease can be difficult. Looking at the relationship between childhood trauma and sexually transmitted diseases is one way to understand that path.

Childhood Trauma and Sexually Transmitted Diseases

When children experience abuse or other forms of trauma, it changes the ways in which they interact with the world. Research suggests that children who have experienced trauma are more likely to engage in a number of unhealthy coping behaviors. This can include disordered eating, smoking, substance abuse, and risky sexual behavior. All of these behaviors can make people feel better on a short term basis, and help them cope. Unfortunately, these coping behaviors are also associated with a number of health problems when used over a long period of time.

Studies have shown that the more ACEs a person experiences, the higher their risk of having been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease. The link between ACEs and STDs has been seen in men and women as well as across racial groups. Why? Because the more ACEs a person has had, the more likely it is that they will have experienced one or more sexual risk factors. Individuals with higher numbers of ACEs have been shown to be more likely to start having sex as young teens, have more than 30 lifetime sexual partners, and have problems with alcohol or drug abuse. In fact, the increased risk of STDs with more ACEs appears to be almost entirely due to an increased risk of such behaviors.

Childhood Trauma and Sexual Dysfunction

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is also data linking childhood trauma to sexual dysfunction. Individuals seeking sex therapy have a substantially higher risk of having a large number of ACEs than the general population. This likely reflects not just the risk factors mentioned above but the fact that sexual health is both physical and emotional. In addition to affecting behavior, trauma affects attachment and connection. When these are disrupted, it can cause problems with sex ranging from lack of interest or enjoyment to fear and pain.

Addressing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma

The best defense against the long-term effects of childhood trauma is working to change the world so that fewer children experience trauma in the first place. However, that's not always possible. That's why it's important to also help people address the long-term effects of trauma on their health. This includes teaching skills related to healthy coping and resilience as well as helping people process their trauma more directly through trauma-informed therapy and other trauma-informed interventions.

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