The Effects of Childhood Trauma on the Body

Guest post by Dr. Kim Dennis

On this week’s episode of YOUR LIFE AFTER TRAUMA (which included some terrific tips about how to find a good therapist) Dr. Dennis gave us great insights about how childhood trauma impacts the body. Today, she expands her on-air ideas with new details…

Although we would like to believe that the impact of trauma on a child’s body and soul is temporary, it isn’t. Cuts, bruises, burns, even broken bones do heal rather quickly, but the emotional devastation associated with developmental trauma often lasts for years and can manifest in the following:

Somatization. In a nutshell this means emotions are experienced as physical pain in the body. Intense emotions such as fear, shame, anxiety, and rage are too overwhelming for a young person to handle. Instead of understanding these feelings and working through them, they get trapped in the body unprocessed, and years later, they can manifest as migraines, neck and back pain, fibromyalgia, endometriosis and many other aches and pains.

Disassociation. Basically, this is defined as detachment from self. For a young person experiencing trauma, disassociation (or the freeze response) is the most intelligent survival response available to them. If a child is small of stature and physically weak, both the “fight” and the “flight” responses would be counterproductive. Later in life, when fight or flight do begin to make sense, the person can get stuck in the response of dissociation. This includes disassociation in the form of starvation, bingeing and purging, self-harm or addiction.

Affect Dysregulation. When children mature under normal conditions, they essentially grow into their feelings; they experience sorrow or anger at appropriate times, their parents model what is acceptable and what isn’t and help them to self-regulate. They eventually grow into adults who are comfortable having emotions as part of their life. When trauma is introduced into the equation, these steps don’t occur; instead, these children grow up not understanding feelings, how to cope effectively with them, or how to express emotion. In fact, often, they cannot even identify what their emotions are. This inability to name emotions is called alexithymia.

Childhood trauma is in no way temporary. The more we understand the long-term consequences of early trauma, the better we can help people heal.

“It is exquisitely healthy to practice gratitude and acceptance of where we are at any given moment on the journey. I believe real and lasting change comes from the experience of awareness, acceptance and then action.”

Dr. Kim Dennis is a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in treating addictions, eating disorders and co-occurring disorders. As Medical Director at Timberline Knolls, she maintains a holistic perspective in the practice of psychiatry. She incorporates biological, psycho-social and spiritual approaches into the individually tailored treatment plan for each resident.

Having had her own experience as a woman in recovery from an eating disorder and alcoholism, she is able to combine her personal journey with her medical training to help residents become emotionally strong, responsible problem-solvers, who are inspired to create fulfilling lives for themselves.

Dr. Kim is published in the areas of gender differences in the development of psychopathology, co-occurring eating disorders and self-injury, and the use of medication with family-based therapy for adolescents with anorexia nervosa. She is also on the editorial board of Eating Disorders: the Journal of Treatment and Prevention. Dr. Kim contributes regularly to news networks, such as ABC News and CNN, other national press such as the Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe and WebMD, and professional magazines such as Addiction Professional and Behavioral Healthcare. She was featured on TLC Discovery Channel’s “My Strange Addiction” and ABC’s “20/20.”

Dr. Kim obtained her medical degree from the University Of Chicago Pritzker School Of Medicine and completed her psychiatry residency training at the University of Chicago Hospitals, where she served as chief resident. During her training, she was part of the multi-disciplinary eating disorders team specializing in treating adolescents with eating disorders and their families. She is a member of the American Medical Association, Academy for Eating Disorders, the American Academy of Addiction psychiatry and the American Society for Addiction Medicine.


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