Trauma and Health: Address One, Help the Other

Trauma and Health: Address One, Help the Other

Cambodia: A land recovering from traumaIt is so damaging it can trim 20 years off of life expectancy. It disrupts brain development, immunity, hormones, and even DNA transcription. It is childhood trauma.

In the linked TEDTalk, Dr. Nadine Burke, who serves in a community with low income children and families, addresses a study by Dr.s Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda about the health risks and implications of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

Attachment, and mental and emotional well-being are greatly affected by childhood trauma, and experts across the globe recognise this. What remains less widely addressed however is the effect trauma has upon people’s physical health. Yet this has wide implications for health and medical systems around the world.

As CIF strives to holistically meet the needs of children and families around Cambodia, it is important for us to take note, and gain a better understanding, of ACEs. The long-term health of Khmer children can depend on it.

The Bad News

Dr. Burke shares that exposure to abuse, living with parents who struggle with mental illness, poverty, neglect, and other similar experiences can affect development of a child’s brain. They inhibit impulse control, and damage parts of the brain associated with the fear-response. That in turn can lead to children making dangerous, potentially harmful choices. When a stress reaction is constantly triggered in a child, this fear system is activated too often, and its hyperactivity becomes “normal”. This in turn causes toxic stress.

All of this is a mechanism for disease: “Folks who are exposed in very high doses [of stress] have triple the lifetime risk of heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year difference in life expectancy,” Dr. Nadine Burke stated.

In Cambodia

ACE Pyramid: Trauma and Development
Pyramid taken from ACEStudy.

When you check the 10 factors involved in the ACE Study, children growing up in the third world and those being raised by generations effected by war and genocide, have it worse again.

Just 40 years ago, Cambodia was ripped apart by the Khmer Rouge. Almost two million people, out of a population of seven million, died due to violence, torture, forced labor, starvation, and lack of medical care. Survivors faced multiple traumas, leaving the population reeling.

Greg Mellen, whose work was published in the Press-Telegraph in 2012, met with the children of Cambodian refugees who had settled in America. He noted that almost all of them carried the symptoms of their parents’ Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and were deeply affected by it.

Studies within Cambodia have shown less clear results, but this may be due to the way Khmer culture avoids bringing up or dealing with negative memories and experiences. Sotheara Chhim explains in his research piece Baksbat (Broken Courage): The Development and Validation of the Inventory to Measure Baksbat, a Cambodian Trauma-based Cultural Syndrome of Distress.

Chhim suggests that PTSD terminology may not translate well into Khmer language and cultural, making it more difficult for clinics and researchers to trace its effects.

Regardless of how trauma is tracked, those who remain in Cambodia have had to pick up the broken pieces of a war-torn nation, enduring extreme poverty and further abuse. This has left the nation vulnerable to human traffickers, paedophiles, and others looking to exploit its people.

Trauma and Health

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Cambodian life expectancy from birth is between 70 and 75 years. WHO ranks Cambodia around 130th in the world for health outcomes. So many factors play into these numbers, including access to necessary medical care, immunizations, clean drinking water, and nutrition.

Could the effects of childhood trauma on health be another piece to this puzzle?

The Good News

If the ACE Study is correct, much of this is treatable if properly addressed. Dr. Burke and others have found that if they can focus on, treat, and prevent childhood trauma, physical health improves.

Trauma affects social and cognitive development across the country.

CIF’s Role

Sexual abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, neglect, witnessing the abuse of others, are five of the ten factors in trauma. Putting children in a loving, stable home, or providing their struggling parents with hope and a means of support, already removes several significant stressors from their lives.

Dirty clothes, poverty, and malnutrition are also among the adverse factors dealt with by CIF. We help empower families to find better means of income generation. We provide filtration for water when needed, assess overall cleanliness, and encourage hygiene. Helping with school uniforms, fees, and food for children in our program can also lessen the shame and burden of poverty.


We appreciate Dr. Burke’s talk and insight because it reminds us why we utilise a holistic approach while addressing development in communities. It also gives CIF clearer understanding of the impacts of adversity in childhood.

Trauma can rob children of so much, including a lifetime of health. If ACEs are addressed early enough, the overall health and well-being of nations and people groups can be measurably improved, which also lessens the monetary and medical impacts on families, communities, and nations.

Addressing trauma and removing negative factors is a win for everyone.

We highly recommend watching Dr Burke’s TEDTalk and checking out the ACEStudy.

Trauma and Health: Address One, Help the Other