Have you ever said “It wasn’t that bad” or “It could have been worse” when you talk about your childhood? We all know people who’ve had greater challenges than ourselves, and it’s common to compare situations, seeing our position as either better or worse than the other person. If we experienced hard times as a child and then later decide that it wasn’t that bad compared to someone else, we may discount our own pain or trauma, effectively sweeping it under the rug.
It can be scary to deal with a painful past, and there’s often shame for having lived in a dysfunctional family or having been abused or neglected, so many of us choose to keep it buried or hidden away in the closet. We think that all we have to do is leave it behind, like the toys we no longer play with as adults. The problem with that is, when we’ve experienced childhood adversity we’re impacted in ways that can last a lifetime, and if we ignore it, it doesn’t just go away.
What do I mean by “childhood adversity”? I’m talking about chronic, unpredictable, stressful experiences that can harm a child’s developing brain. That harm alters the neural pathways for stress response, increasing a person’s risk of developing serious, chronic illness later in life. According to the groundbreaking CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study , or ACE STUDY, these events include physical, sexual or emotional abuse; physical or emotional neglect; losing a parent through divorce, death, incarceration or abandonment; growing up with a depressed or substance-abusing parent; living with a battered mother; or experiencing chronic humiliation. If you think or know you’ve had childhood adversity, you can take the ten-question ACE QUIZ yourself to find out where you stand on a scale of zero to ten.
There are other events that can create trauma, too, and the definition of ACEs is expanding to include growing up in extreme poverty or amidst dangerous circumstances – think gang culture or a war zone. I would add having a sibling who was seriously injured and had several surgeries as well as losing a sibling to accidental death. Consider stressful events that go beyond the normal ups and downs of growing and developing, and you’re talking about adversity.
It’s a no-brainer (pun intended) that a child who has experienced chronic, toxic stress or trauma will be at risk for psychological or emotional problems in adulthood. Thanks to the ACE Study and over 70 further research papers published on the subject, we know that people who grew up in adversity are more likely to develop serious and chronic illness as adults, including autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity, depression and other mental illness, sleep problems, substance abuse behaviors and eating disorders. People with multiple ACEs also tend to have higher absenteeism and impaired worker performance, social engagement problems, financial stress and poverty, homelessness, and violence – both as victims and as perpetrators.
Do you think this doesn’t affect you? Think again – the economic cost of this problem in the US alone is currently estimated to be $585 Billion across the lifetime. Who do you think pays that bill? The huge medical, social and economic costs of this issue impact all of us, even if we got lucky and weren’t individually exposed. If 2/3 of us have experienced ACEs, chances are high that we all have friends, family members, co-workers or employees who grew up in adversity – many of whom are limited in life by their childhood histories.
Ok, just because a person grows up with adversity doesn’t guarantee he or she will end up in dire straits or seriously ill in adulthood. It’s important to consider whether the child is well-supported by at least one stable, reliable adult, even if not a parent. Some events that can cause trauma in a child who doesn’t have adequate adult support and connection may not have a lasting effect on a child who does have access to protective factors. Also, even within the same family, one person can have a very different set of experiences from another. For example, six adult siblings could all have different scores on the ACE Quiz.
Now, here’s the part where it can get better, at any age. Thanks to the cutting edge science of Neuroplasticity, we can reboot our brains, heal our nervous systems and cultivate a healthier stress response. There are several ways to recover from childhood adversity, build neurobiological resilience and experience emotional freedom. Science writer Donna Jackson Nakazawa wrote a great article on this subject titled “8 Ways to Recover From Post Childhood Adversity Syndrome” – definitely check it out!
Here’s a brief outline of Nakazawa’s suggestions (I’ve done all 8 except EEG Neurofeedback, and I’m eager to try that, too):
- Start by taking the ACE QUIZ and discuss it with your primary care provider. Opening a conversation can initiate healing.
- Write about your childhood traumas, even if you destroy the writing afterward. This raises your awareness and helps you to understand how your past may be affecting your present.
- Learn and practice Mindfulness Meditation – this can heal the brain, lower depression and ease anxiety.
- Yoga – this decreases blood flow to the amygdala (the alarm center in your brain) and promotes calm.
- Therapy – I recommend finding a therapist who does EMDR (see below), somatic or energy work in addition to talk therapy.
- EEG Neurofeedback – this cutting edge modality increases neural connectivity and emotional resilience.
- EMDR Therapy- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – a powerful form of psychotherapy that helps one to remember past traumas safely while accessing a healing state similar to REM state – this is the theta brainwave state.
- Community – Positive connections with others increases oxytocin, a “happy hormone” and decreases inflammatory response.
In addition, I’ve used the following modalities in my own healing journey over the past 20 years (I have an ACE Score of 6):
- Daily walks outside for at least 30 minutes – I walk near my rural home, but it can be around town if that’s easier for you. It’s best to leave your earbuds at home and just notice what’s around you, using all of your senses to be fully present.
- Guided Visualization and Affirmation Audio – these have really helped me during stressful life transitions.
- Hakomi – mindfulness-based somatic psychotherapy.
- Breema, therapeutic touch and other massage oriented body work.
- Brainwave Entrainment Audio – this sound therapy can help with neural connectivity.
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) Tapping & Matrix Re-imprinting. These both use tapping on energetic meridian points on the body, similar to acupressure or acupuncture, while holding an emotionally distressing memory or pattern in mind. These modalities are great for lowering anxiety and releasing shame, guilt and resentment as well as chronic pain.
- Acupuncture – this helps to reduce pain and balance your nervous system.
- Hypnotherapy – this really helped me to release the past and breakthrough to a higher level of wellness.
- Hanna Somatic Therapy – this neuromuscular re-education modality can ease chronic pain, improve muscle function and enhance sensory awareness.
There are many other modalities and practices a person can use to heal emotionally and balance the nervous system. The important thing is to find the pathways to healing that resonate with you, and be gentle and patient with yourself along the way. I’ve come to learn that creating well-being and resilience is a continuous process that takes daily practice.
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Photo by John Hain under Creative Commons via Pixabay