Body and Brain

Long-term consequences of child sexual abuse include physical illnessneurochemical changes, and structural brain changes. The mind and body are connected, and emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are interactive, not separate. If trauma occurs to the mind, the body has a natural biochemical response to the stress. If trauma occurs in the body, the mind is affected via neurotransmissions affecting emotions, mood, and mind-state. The mind-body connection as it relates to abuse is explanatory in understanding increased physical illness and other long-term effects of sexual abuse. The child is a whole human being consisting of many connected parts: body, emotion, mind, and spirit.

Child sexual abuse is connected to many illnesses and disease processes. Adults who have been sexually abused as children frequent doctor's offices and hospitals more often. They manifest symptoms of certain illnesses and diseases more frequently. The number of times abuse occurred, length of time of abuse, and severity of abuse are factors that influence the number, severity, and chronicity of physical symptoms. 

Dissociation is associated to chronic physical symptoms in childhood sexual abuse victims. A child's sexual abuse is a traumatic event. To survive that event, the child may dissociate, mentally escaping from the pain and fear. This is adaptive at the time. However, the child may later not be able to separate physical responses from memory cues. For example, pseudoseizures sometimes occur when an adult victim experiences current stress or a memory of historical abuse. The adult victim will dissociate, using the same coping skill she used during the abusive event. Because she is no longer in the abusive event, the coping skill is maladaptive.

Dissociation becomes a patterned response to stress. It can cause a lack of awareness of bodily feelings, and this may result in compromised interactions between the mind and the body. Physical function may be significantly impacted. The victim’s interpretation of disease and illness is altered. Reduction of dissociation results in health benefits in the victim's life. Awareness and mindfulness are the opposite of dissociation. 

Some distressing physical symptoms have no known organic causation and may be the result of unprocessed memories and emotions related to the abuse trauma. Sexual abuse victims are more likely to attribute health symptoms to organic illness rather than stress. Both child and adult victims are vulnerable to increased concerns about bodily functions because of the violation of their bodies through abuse. This contributes to an increase in somatic complaints for which physicians find no appropriate diagnostic category. Sometimes physicians minimize or ignore the distress experienced by adults with sexual abuse histories. Unfortunately, history-taking in doctor's offices does not usually include questions regarding prior abuse. In some instances, doctors order unneccessary, invasive, and expensive diagnostic procedures.

Child sexual abuse causes a cascade of physological, biochemical, and hormonal changes due to the stress and trauma involved. These changes damage biochemical processes occurring in the developing child's brain. Many sexually abused children develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD results in victims reexperiencing the trauma, avoiding reminders of the trauma, and having increased arousal, such as difficulty sleeping, irritability, anger, hypervigilance, and startle response. PTSD also results in damage to biochemical processes in the brain.  

See Effect on Brain.
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