Many people come into therapy and ask “You’re going to ask me about my childhood aren’t you?” “You’re going to ask me what my relationship was like with my mother huh?” I gently tell them “Yes, when you are ready, and here’s why…”
Ongoing adversity and stress in childhood often leads to a chronic state of being in the “fight, flight or freeze” response. When stress hormones consistently flood a child’s brain and body, they can change the genes that are in charge of their stress reactivity, dialing the stress response to over-drive, for life. The brain and body get stuck in high reactivity stress response mode.
“After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment.” -Judith Herman
The stress response is supposed to go full circle, in the face of a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. For example, “Oh my god, there’s a mountain lion!” Your sympathetic nervous system kicks in and prepares your body for intense physical activity (i.e., running or fighting). Adrenaline and cortisol are pumping through your body, your heart starts pounding, here comes the tunnel vision, you start shaking, your muscles contract. Then, the mountain lion runs off (“PHEWWWW!”) and your parasympathetic starts doing it’s job, to bring you back to normal. Your heart rate drops, your muscles relax, a wave of relief and calm come over you, back into homeostasis.
Now, let’s say that moutain lion is always hiding in your house, in the form of an overly-critical mother, an alcoholic father, an abusive parent… there’s that tension, like you are always walking on egg shells, that unpredictability. So, in order to survive, your brain and body keep you in a chronic state of being on high alert, in high reactivity stress response mode. This wears on the brain and body and becomes a biological expression of early adversity in childhood whose long-term effects might not rear their head until much later in life.
Amazingly enough, research suggests that these biological expressions of trauma, these epigenetic changes, get passed on from generation to generation. Therefore, children who are exposed to adverse childhood experiences show changes in the genes that manage the stress response for life, the stress-inflammation response. This actually makes quite a bit of sense because always being on high alert in a dysfunctional and abusive household, is a survival mechanism, it keeps you safe and alive. However, always being on high alert, also results in changes in the genes that oversee the likelihood of developing a range of chronic diseases as adults.
The famous research study that shed light on this phenomena is called the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study. Adverse Childhood Experiences were categorized as follows: psychological, physical, or sexual abuse; violence against mother; or living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or ever imprisoned. The results of the study concluded that if you experienced 4 or more categories of adverse childhood exposure (compared to those who didn’t experience any), you had a 4 to 10 fold increased risk for developing drug and alcohol addiction, depression, and having a suicide attempt; a 2-4 fold increase in smoking, poor self-rated health, 50 or more sexual intercourse partners, and sexually transmitted disease; and increased risk of being inactive and obese. The number of categories of adverse childhood experiences someone experienced showed a graded relationship to the presence of adult diseases like heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease. Therefore, the more categories of adverse childhood experiences you lived through, the more likely you are to have multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death and disease in adults.
What are some examples of adverse childhood experiences? Some are obvious- physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence. Living with household members who abuse drugs, struggle with their own mental illness, or who are suicidal. Having a family member go to prison. Others are less extreme, and occur frequently- growing up with divorced parents, losing a parent through loss, abandonment, or death, living with an adult who was depressed or had an addiction, having a parent who routinely criticized, belitted, and insulted you, or put you down, feeling as if your family didn’t love you or have your back.
Now, you cannot control what happened to you as a child, you didn’t deserve what you went through. And there are ways to recover and heal from adverse childhood experiences and trauma.
“Just as physical wounds and bruises heal, just as we can regain our muscle tone, we can recover function in under-connected areas of the brain. The brain and body are never static; they are always in the process of becoming and changing.” -Donna Jackson Nakazawa
Want to know your ACE Score? Go here.
Healing from adverse childhood experiences and trauma, looks different for everyone. So, there is not one-size fits all approach to healing and recovering from adverse childhood experiences and trauma. However, due to the bodily nature of trauma, adversity, and stress, some form of body and movement based practice is indicated- dancing, yoga, running, tai chi, hula hooping, mountain biking, swimming. Try writing, mindfulness meditation, go to therapy (EMDR Therapy, Internal Family Systems Therapy), creating art, writing and playing music. Stay connected to others and build community.
“Traumatic events destroy the sustaining bonds between individual and community. Those who have survived learn that their sense of self, of worth, of humanity, depends upon a feeling of connection with others. The solidarity of a group provides the strongest protection against terror and despair, and the strongest antidote to traumatic experience. Trauma isolates; the group re-creates a sense of belonging. Trauma shames and stigmatizes; the group bears witness and affirms. Trauma degrades the victim; the group exalts her. Trauma dehumanizes the victim; the group restores her humanity. Repeatedly in the testimony of survivors there comes a moment when a sense of connection is restored by another person’s unaffected display of generosity. Something in herself that the victim believes to be irretrievably destroyed—faith, decency, courage—is reawakened by an example of common altruism. Mirrored in the actions of others, the survivor recognizes and reclaims a lost part of herself. At that moment, the survivor begins to rejoin the human commonality…” -Judith Herman