How our past experiences can affect our health

We have all had various experiences that have had a significant impact on who we are. What’s interesting to note is that it’s not so much the experience itself that is important, but the meaning we assign to the experience. What is the story we tell ourselves about that experience? That’s what affects who we are, future decisions we make, and how we interact with others.

Past experiences are the things that have made up our life up until this point. They are positive and negative events. They are both one-offs and the things we do day in day out that become ingrained us. They are of vital importance to our happiness and well being. We need to understand them and how they impact what we do now, in the present, in order to live a happy and fulfilled life.

A rocky childhood. A violent assault. A serious illness. If these are in your past, they could be affecting your present health. These are examples of traumatic events which can be one-off or ongoing which you may think that your life or others' lives are in danger. You may feel very afraid and that you have no control over what is happening around you.

Research shows that these events can trigger emotional and even physical reactions that can make you more prone to a number of different health conditions, including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.

Traumatic events can be anything from from a sexual assault or childhood abuse to a death threatening illness. However, trauma isn’t limited to experiences from illegal activities or events of a severe nature. Stressful events of a milder form can also cause traumatic experiences, e.g, a messy divorce, job loss or sudden loss of a family member. These milder events can also lead to a mental health disorder, such as anxiety or depression.

Your risk for mental and physical health problems from a past trauma goes up with the number of these events you've experienced. Over a lifetime, a person can experience more than one traumatic event and the accumulated impact can tip them over the edge.

Trauma is defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) as the emotional response someone has to an extremely negative event. While trauma is a normal reaction to a horrible event, the effects can be so severe that they interfere with an individual’s ability to live a normal life. In this case, help may be needed to treat the stress and dysfunction caused by the traumatic event and to restore the individual to a state of emotional well-being.

Research has shown that trauma can affect people emotionally, mentally and physically. Some people may turn to alcohol and drugs, comfort eating as a coping mechanism to help them deal with the emotional dysfunction. Participating in the above activities can cause a range of health issues in itself.

When we experience stress or something anxiety-provoking, our stress response (fight or flight) is activated through our parasympathetic nervous system. The brain releases neurotransmitters like hormones (cortisol and adrenaline that helps you run away from a physical threat) that communicates with the other parts of the body to shut down functions that promote rest and digest. When this chronic stress response is repetitively triggered, inflammation in the body is increased and inflammation has been associated with a broad range of illness, including cardiovascular disease and autoimmune diseases. Typically, the more trauma you've experienced, the worse your health is if left untreated.

Unfortunately, people who have suffered trauma may also struggle to get help. A common coping mechanism is avoidance or denial, which makes sense because if you have experienced a traumatic event, you want to avoid revisiting the memories or places that reminds you of it. People also believe that healthcare providers, therapists and counselors will want them to talk about it and bring up feelings or memories of the past. This could also be a reason for people to avoid seeking treatment or medical care.

If you are affected by a past trauma, the good news is it is treatable and you can move past them - you don’t have to be stuck. Working with trained therapists, taking up yoga & meditation and reaching out to others are steps you can take.