Physical Illness

The disclosure of a child’s sexual abuse initiates a period of great stress in a mother's life. Stress has an immediate impact on emotional and physical health although healthy coping and supportive resources can minimize negative effects of stress. Chronic stress results in a predictable series of physical changes, including reduction of the immune system's function.

Following disclosure mothers experience both acute and ongoing stress. The initial disclosure evokes shock, followed by intense grief and loss. Mothers report angerguilt depression, and fear as initial responses to the disclosure. Mothers often have posttraumatic stress symptoms and may be diagnosed with PTSD. While the mother copes with her own negative symptoms, she must provide consistent support to the victim and other children as well as manage the stress related to law enforcement, social services, and court involvement in the case. Because stress may be chronic, biochemical processes occur, affecting memory, mood, attention, and the immune system. Physical illness may occur. Many mothers report increased illness following disclosure, including colds, infectious illnesses, and increases in chronic illnesses. Minor and major surgeries and hospitalizations may increase.

The mother's vulnerability to illness is predictable because of the stress response following disclosure. The body and mind function as one system, and the state of mind affects the emotions. Negative emotions result in alterations in the immune system and initiate a process associated with infection and disease. Short-term stress results in temporary changes to the immune system; however, chronic stress results in continued negative changes in the immune system and in health.

It is critical that mothers use effective coping strategies to reduce stress and maintain healthy functioning of the immune system. Refer to Counteracting Stress for activities to reduce stress and maintain health. The section on Coping With Thoughts provides strategies to maintain a positive and healthful attitude while dealing with the stress involved with your child's disclosure and the resulting consequences.

Children who have been sexually abused experience increased physical symptoms and are overrepresented in many illness and disease categories. The reasons for this are similar to those for their mothers. Mind and body are connected, and stress and negative emotions affect health.

  1. Stress, especially chronic stress such as that experienced by children repeatedly abused, causes a release of stress-related hormones into the body. These hormones have a negative impact on the immune system and place the child at risk of physical illness.
  2. Emotions are closely tied to health. The fear and of the sexual abuse victim cause symptoms of illness as the child's anxiety is expressed physically. Because sexual abuse is physical violation, the child has fears around bodily functioning. This may be related to the PTSD symptom of hyperarousal.
  3. Dissociation results in a lack of body awareness. Children may be unable to distinguish between emotions and physical sensations.

Examples of somatic symptoms in child sexual abuse victims include stomach pain, headaches, asthma, bladder problems, abdominal pain, back or leg pain, constipation or diarrhea, bed-wetting, inability to control bowels, and general fatigue. Long-term physical consequences of child sexual abuse may include fibromyalgia, chronic pain, pelvic pain, chest pain, irritable bowel syndrome, chemical sensitivities, gastrointestinal symptoms, headaches, non-epileptic seizures, gynecological disorders, bladder infections, asthma, heart disease, diabetes, and eating disorders.

The mind and body are connected, and stress and trauma results in negative health effects in both mind and body. Both mother and child victim need support, counseling, stress management, and improved self care (e.g., nutrition, exercise) to combat the negative effects of stress and maintain physical health.


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