It’s well known that stress makes people sick, and extreme trauma makes them even sicker. But a new study suggests that not everyone who endures adversity is doomed to chronic illness. There might be a way to prevent the body from attacking itself in the wake of trauma.
For the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, a team of researchers examined the effects of resilience—a measurement of grittiness in the face of strife—on the immune systems of former child soldiers in Nepal. From 1996 to 2006, Maoist rebels fought a civil war against Nepal’s monarchy and the government forces that protected it. One of their strategies was recruiting children, first in various “cultural” activities, such as dancing, but eventually in military roles. By the time the war was over, thousands of children had served as soldiers.
The researchers, from Duke University and the University of California, Los Angeles, found these former child soldiers all over Nepal, interviewed them, and tested their blood. Perhaps expectedly, the soldiers were more likely to have PTSD, and consequently, a marker of chronic inflammation called CTRA gene expression. CTRA stands for “conserved transcriptional response to adversity.” It means that chronic, prolonged trauma can activate genes that pump pro-inflammatory proteins into the blood, gut, brain, and other areas. People who have high CTRA are more susceptible to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and mental health issues like depression and anxiety.