Now, with the complete upheaval of our lives by COVID19, most families can quickly identify how trauma affects so many parts of our health and well-being. From sleep disturbances to mental health disorders and trouble with focus and attention, it is easy to identify many of these changes in our children now. As pediatricians, we have learned that these affects can reach far into the future. Experiencing trauma increases the risk of many health complications such as obesity and diabetes, which is why we work hard to identify trauma in our patients.
Traumatic events trigger our body’s fight or flight response system causing a number of physiologic changes such as an increase in heart rate and sweating. These changes were really important for prehistoric humans who had to face predators while hunting for food, but are less adaptive when you are doing something like public speaking and have the same response. The stress hormone cortisol drives many of these effects, and can result in the health complications that we worry about down the line. This stress system, which was designed for rare confrontations with a predator, can get stuck in overdrive for patients that have experienced trauma and be hard to turn off.
Due to the history of oppression and racism in our country, families of color may experience that same fight or flight response with everyday events such as going for a jog or interacting with an authority figure. Watching the news these past few weeks can be a big trigger for so many who are already on edge due the effects of the pandemic, and that added fear factor can be paralyzing. People may be experiencing many emotions: anger, sadness, anxiety, or fear. Taking a break from the news cycle can be helpful for both you and your child to process what you are experiencing together. Safety is the most important thing that every child needs. When we experience a loss of safety our brains will predict threat everywhere, which impairs our ability to emotionally connect and learn.
One of the most powerful things that we can do when we identify trauma is to name it. By helping to recognize where these physiologic changes come from, we can start to take steps to protect the short and long term health of our patients and families. Experiencing trauma doesn’t automatically mean a lifetime of medical problems. There are protective things that we can do to change how that trauma affects our bodies long term. We know that we need to take extra care to support our black and brown families who are feeling unsafe and help to build resiliency in their children. While so much of our community is isolated by the pandemic, it is vitally important to talk to your pediatrician about what your family is experiencing so that we can connect you to resources and take the extra steps to keep you healthy now and in the future.
Sarah Knight, MD, FAAP