What do alcoholism, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and anxiety, and some forms of cancer have in common?
They can all be linked to childhood trauma.
From 1995 to 1997, Kaiser Permanente and The Center For Disease Control conducted The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). The study, which is frequently cited as a notable landmark in epidemiological (relating to the branch of medicine which deals with the incidence, distribution, and control of diseases) research, showed the connection between ten types of childhood trauma and health and social issues across a lifespan. Childhood trauma effects not only brain development but also impacts the hormonal and immune systems, and how DNA is read and transcribed. This causes health issues that may not have developed if life circumstances were different.
The development of the ACE study came out of discoveries made during a study on weight loss.
The study of obese patients, led by Dr. Vincent Felitti, head of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, had a dropout rate of almost 50%. When Felitti interviewed those who left the program, he discovered that almost all of them had endured sexual abuse as a child. He suspected that their weight gain was a response to the anxiety, fear, and depression created by the trauma. From this hypothesis, the ACE Study was born.
In spite of the findings being released in the 90’s, the ACE Study essentially stayed out of the mainstream until a Ted Talk by pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris in 2014. Describing in graphic detail the impact of childhood trauma on individuals as well as the medical system, Dr. Harris’s talk has been viewed almost 4 million times on the Ted website (not to mention the millions of other views thanks to multiple postings of the talk on YouTube). Not only is the medical community waking up to the realities of trauma, but millions of people are gaining insight into why they suffer from myriad conditions and diseases.
How does it work?
The ACE survey consists of ten questions. The questions were chosen for the survey because they represented the most common – but not all – forms of childhood trauma. For each “yes” answer, a point is received. The higher your ACE score, the more likely it is that you will experience poor health – and even early death.
67% of the population in the United States have an ACE score of 1. And, if you have 1 ACE, there is an 87% chance that you will have 2 or more. People with an ACE score of 4 are twice as likely to become smokers – and are 7 times more likely to abuse alcohol. If you have an ACE score of 6 or more, it is possible that your life expectancy will be shortened by twenty years.
What does it mean?
The threat lies in how childhood trauma affects the developing brain. The stress that ACEs cause lead to fundamental changes in the way the brain is structured and how it deals with stress – which can result in the production of an overwhelming amount of cortisol and adrenaline in response to these traumatic situations. The overproduction of these hormones also impacts the immune system so profoundly that, not only does it make it difficult to process what the has been experienced, but also makes a person more susceptible to disease, as well as emotional and mental health issues in adult life.
But as much as the ACE Study has shone a light on the effects of trauma, it has been criticized for presenting what seems like an unavoidable future of pain and suffering. But that’s actually not the case – and it’s where the good news lies. Because for every person who experienced childhood trauma, while it may lead to issues down the line, it’s also incredibly likely that they developed something else that means the difference between giving up and fighting back: resilience.
We can never know exactly what someone has gone through by looking at them. Have you ever had the experience of getting to know someone and found out that they’ve been through a particularly awful life event? If you are shocked on some level that they function as well as they do, in spite of it, that’s resilience at work.
Resilience is the process of ‘bouncing back’ in the face of trauma or adversity. When you are resilient in a difficult situation, you are able to both feel and manage your emotions, make realistic plans and carry them out, practice good communication, and retain a positive view or yourself and your abilities.
Resilience doesn’t mean being unresponsive or ignoring a problem or event.
Resilient people don’t push issues under the rug or put a ‘positive’ spin on tragedy. Rather, they keep things in perspective, find a support system, and take decisive actions to move forward.
The process of finding support in developing resilience is slightly different for everyone. Adult children with alcoholic parents may find Al-Anon support groups beneficial to their recovery. Many different forms of individual therapy are available, as are self-help books that discuss healing strategies for specific forms of abuse. Yoga and mindfulness have helped millions of people regain harmony in their bodies. For some, bodywork can help release traumatic events locked in the body. But there is a specific therapy that has been developed to release trauma, and heal the nervous system, which is often hijacked in response to trauma.
In the 1980’s, Dr. Peter Levine discovered and developed what is now known as Somatic Experiencing. According to the official website, Somatic Experiencing (SE) “is a body-oriented approach to the healing of trauma and other stress disorders”. Using the SE method, therapists can assist trauma sufferers in releasing traumatic shock in the body, which is key to transforming the wounds of childhood trauma.
Dr. Levine was inspired to study stress on the animal nervous system, when he realized that animals are constantly under threat of death, yet show no symptoms of trauma. What he discovered was that trauma has to do with the third survival response to perceived life threat, which is freeze. When fight and flight are not options, we freeze and immobilize, like “playing dead.” This makes us less of a target. However, this reaction is time-sensitive, in other words, it needs to run its course, and the massive energy that was prepared for fight or flight gets discharged, through shakes and trembling. If the immobility phase doesn’t complete, then that charge stays trapped, and, from the body’s perspective, it is still under threat. The Somatic Experiencing® method works to release this stored energy, and turn off this threat alarm that causes severe dysregulation and dissociation. From https://traumahealing.org
Somatic Experiencing has been used successfully to treat trauma related not only to early childhood, but to heal trauma caused by accidents, assault, birth, natural disasters, war, and invasive medical procedures. Hundreds of thousands of people have found relief from a lifetime of health issues – and have been able to do it without ‘reliving’ the trauma and causing re-traumatization, which is often a hallmark of talk therapy.
If you (or someone you love) are dealing with health issues brought on by trauma from early childhood, there is hope. Below are a list of resources that can help you understand your experience of trauma, strengthen your resilience, and live a life unencumbered by the past. Of course, before starting any treatment program, talk to your doctor or healthcare professional.
- Ted Talk: How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across A Lifetime
- Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development
- How Trauma Changes The Brain
- Waking the Tiger, Dr. Peter A. Levine
- The Body Keeps The Score, Bessel van der Kolk M.D.
- Childhood Disrupted, Donna Jackson Nakazawa