Childhood Trauma and Toxic Stress

Resilient Societies

Traumatic experiences in childhood can have lasting impacts throughout a person’s life.

Investigations done in recent years have revealed that strains in childhood can produce a toxic level of stress in the bodies of young children, which can have lasting, lifelong effects on physical and mental well-being.

three children laughing at a fourth child

Sixty percent of adults report experiencing traumas in childhood such as abuse, bullying, domestic violence, community violence, parental death, divorce, illness, incarceration, or substance abuse. Many of these risks tend to cluster together, with 48 percent of adults having experienced two or more at some point growing up. These experiences have been found to be linked with increased risk of heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disease, depression, suicide, drug addiction and more. Now, researchers at Texas State are beginning to further investigate these relationships in order to shed light on the many ways the mind can affect the body, and lived experience can affect health. 

four women standing outside

The team, led by Dr. Toni Watt of the Department of Sociology, is made up of a diverse group of social and psychological researchers. Drs. Seoyoun Kim and Xi Pan also come from the Sociology Department, Dr. Natalie Ceballos is from the Psychology Department. Kim specializes in biomarker research relating to stress-released chemical compounds like cortisol, teleomere, and C-reactive protein (which can lead to inflammation in the nervous system). Pan studies aging and the life course as it relates to health, behavior and cognitive functions. Ceballos is a trained neuroscientist with expertise in cutting-edge biomarker research. 

Watt has spent decades studying child maltreatment, and claims that while medication can be effective and necessary in some cases, if not paired with treatments that address trauma, they will only ever be partially successful. She described her goals for the project: “If we have a better understanding of how trauma affects the mind, body, and behavior then we can develop interventions that address the root cause of the problem, rather than offering treatments that only suppress the symptoms.”

Robust data connecting childhood stress to chemical biomarkers and emerging mental health issues can help better treatments be administered sooner.

Currently, the team is conducting preliminary research and preparing to apply for a number of grants from the National Institutes of Health. The researchers hope to answer lingering questions related to how trauma impacts health later in life, including what qualities cause some traumatic events to be more impactful than others, the specific mechanisms by which trauma can affect mental health, and what factors might mitigate the negative effects of childhood trauma.

The study aims to identify the relationship between the quantity, timing of onset, and duration of traumatic events and mental health issues. Biomarker data will be used to study neurological, inflammatory and physiological connections between childhood trauma and adverse health effects. In connection with these goals, the team will also seek to identify moderating factors that can lessen the effects of trauma both at onset and later in life. Factors such as social support, diet, and exercise will be considered.

child curled up with head on his knees

The initial study will consist of a survey administered to 400 college students from Texas State University. Blood and saliva will be collected from 150 respondents in order to test for chemical biomarkers related to trauma. Young adults have been underrepresented in similar studies, and the team hopes to identify early indicators of health effects due to traumatic childhood events. College can be an extremely difficult time, when students are adapting to life away from home and increased responsibility, and many mental health issues tend to emerge during young adulthood.

Robust data connecting childhood stress to chemical biomarkers and emerging mental health issues can help better treatments be administered sooner. Once the design and methods developed for the study have been tested and approved, the team will apply for three targeted federal grants: two R03 grants and one R15 from the National Institutes of Health.

A primary goal of the study is to place academic focus on a holistic idea of mental health. Emerging research has shown that the body and mind are much more intimately connected that has been previously believed. Trauma is known to have lasting effects on a person’s mental health, however, current trends in diagnosis and treatment do not account for traumatic experiences. Screening and treatments for past traumas exist and are well-tested, but the current medical paradigm favors rapid diagnosis of disorders followed by the application of pharmaceuticals to treat symptoms.

The Mental Health Research Group hopes that by illuminating the very direct pathways by which traumatic experiences can affect mental health, they can be a part of an emerging shift in perspective that asks patients “what happened to you?” rather than simply asking “what is wrong with you?”

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