Distressing childhood events don’t remain in our past; they can impact heavily on us during adulthood, causing both physical and mental ill health.
When I was twelve, I was coming home from swimming at my neighbour’s dock when I saw an ambulance’s flashing lights in our driveway. I still remember the asphalt burning my feet as I stood, paralysed, and watched the paramedics take away my father. It was as if I knew those flashing lights were a harbinger that my childhood was over.
‘At the hospital, a surgeon performed “minor” elective bowel surgery on my young dad. The surgeon made an error, and instead of my father coming home to the “welcome home” banners we’d painted, he died.’ ~ Donna Jackson Nakazawa, author of Childhood disrupted – how your biography becomes your biology, and how you can heal.
Donna goes on to recount how she began developing strange physical symptoms shortly after this, and ultimately an autoimmune disease in her 20s that caused full-body paralysis. It was only in her 50s that an aware doctor asked her one of the most important questions of her life: ‘Were there any childhood traumas or stressors that might have contributed to the extreme level of inflammation you’re experiencing as an adult?’
CHILDHOOD ADVERSITY/ILL HEALTH LINK DISCOVERY
In the mid-1980s, Dr Vincent J. Felitti, head of a preventative care initiative at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Program in San Diego, US, started to notice a startling pattern in patients in their obesity programme: Adult patients who were obese almost all alluded to traumatic incidents in their childhood. On further investigation, these patients revealed that for them, eating soothed the anxiety, fear and depression that they had secreted away inside for decades.
Felitti’s studies started to reveal a pattern that other physicians were just not seeing. Obesity was not the core problem to be treated, ‘any more than smoke is the core problem to be treated in house fi res’. His findings led to the setting up of a study1 with thousands of patients suffering from all types of diseases, not just obesity. The results were astounding – and the link between many types of childhood adversity and the likelihood of developing a range of serious adult health problems confirmed.
‘Our findings exceeded anything we had conceived. The correlation between having a difficult childhood and facing illness as an adult offered a whole new lens through which we could view human health and disease. Here was the missing piece as to what was causing so much of our unspoken suffering as human beings,’ said Felitti.
One of the doctors working with him on the study, Dr Robert Anda, said, ‘When I saw how much people had suffered . . . I wept.’
ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES/DISEASE CORRELATION
How many categories of what they named Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) patients had endured could by and large predict how much medical care they would require in adulthood – the higher their ACES score, the higher the number of doctor visits they’d had in the past year, and the higher their number of unexplained physical symptoms.
According to the study, adversity in childhood is often the precursor to deep depression and anxiety later in life. ACES also have a marked correlation to pain, mental disorders, suicide attempts, autoimmune disease, addiction and all sorts of chronic illnesses from asthma to cancer. Cellular biologist, renowned author and one of the pioneers in his field, Dr Bruce Lipton, estimates that as much as 95% of disease can be traced back to ACES.
WHY AND HOW
The question of course is why this happens, and how. Not every ‘bump and scrape’ that happens to us in childhood has a negative effect in adulthood – in fact, the normal childhood stressors we all face build resilience. The problem, it turns out, is when ACES cause stress that is chronic (ongoing for a period) and unpredictable (the child never knows when the stress-event is going to occur).
Chronic stress effect
Our stress (fight or flight) response is designed to cope with sudden stressors that appear and then go away – like a lion unexpectedly leaping out of the veld. Adrenaline pumps, blood rushes to our muscles, and we either fight or flee. What we are not good at coping with is when the proverbial lion is constantly prowling around our house. We never know where it is or when it is going to pounce. For example, if we had an alcoholic parent: One day they are sober and available, the next they’re lying on the couch, unable to respond to our needs. Or a hyper-critical parent with anger issues: One minute they are calm, the next they are jumping down our throat for something that didn’t bother them the day before.
To cope with this, children develop a constant state of hypervigilance. But this creates a continual ‘wash’ of cortisol and other stress hormones coursing throughout the body. Even babies exposed to unpredictable stress suffer intensely. Take for example a mother who is not able to respond to her baby’s needs because she’s suffering from post-natal depression. A needy, neglected baby cannot respond to this ‘stressor’ by fighting or fleeing, so their stress response becomes ‘freeze’ – giving up and shutting down – which appears as lethargy and a non-responsive state. And it’s the same wash of stress hormones running through their little bodies, playing havoc with their inflammatory response.
We also now know that our bodies never forget. As with the patients on the obesity study, the pain is always there – we just find different ways of medicating it.
Chronic stress and neuro-inflammation
When we are chronically stressed, the brain creates a state of neuro-inflammation. The result is impaired growth of neurons in the hippocampus and impaired emotional wellbeing (decision-making abilities, emotional regulation, thoughts and behaviour) as adults. This means a higher propensity for depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, anxiety disorders and poor decision-making – all of which can lead to substance abuse.
Worse, as we get older (and women suffer in far greater numbers than men), we develop illnesses like fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue syndrome, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, bowel disorders, cancers, heart disease and chronic pain.
EXAMPLES OF ACES
In the gamut of experiences we go through as children, it turns out that quite specific ones (always, the ones that give us chronic, unpredictable stress) have measurable, detrimental effects on us as adults. These include:
In the family
- Being regularly verbally put down or humiliated
- Emotional or physical neglect
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Having a depressed parent (or other mental illness)
- Having a chronically ill parent for a significant period
- Having a parent who was addicted to alcohol or other substances
- Witnessing a mother/father/sibling being abused
- Losing a parent to separation/divorce
- Losing a parent to death
- Disliked by a sibling/favouritism by parents
- A forced, unwanted separation from family
- A strained or cold relationship with either or both parents
- Being bullied by a classmate or teacher
- Undergoing a personal extended medical trauma
- Experiencing violence in one’s community
- Growing up noticeably different from your peers
- Any other stressors that happen to us that cause intense levels of fear on a regular basis
SOME ACE STATISTICS
Here are more alarming statistics that came out of the ACES study. People with an ACE score of 4 were twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer than someone with an ACE score of 0. For each ACE score, the chance of being hospitalised with an autoimmune disease in adulthood rose 20%. Someone with an ACE score of 4 was 460% more likely to be facing depression than someone with a score of 0. An ACE score of 6 and higher shortened an individual’s lifespan by almost 20 years. The loss of a parent in childhood triples the chances of depression in adulthood. Being raised by a mother with depression puts you at a higher risk of living with chronic pain as an adult.
Fortunately, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Studies show that the brain has great plasticity right through our lives. This means that we can reset our stress response and stop and even reverse the damage done. There are thousands of case studies of people being cured of ‘incurable’ illnesses; and not only that, they’ve gone on to live lives of success, happiness and peace.
Once you have identified your ACES, there are several modalities that are known to have helped people to heal, such as: writing or drawing; mindfulness meditation; the martial arts practices of t’ai-chi and qigong (moving meditation); forgiveness; yoga; trauma release exercises through to bodywork; improving our gut flora; and developing deep and connected relationships.
Therapy work that has shown good results includes: traditional talk therapy, Somatic Experiencing (SE), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), hypnosis, guided imagery, EEG Neurofeedback, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), PSTEC, Psych-K and ReCode, an energy psychology technique that combines a number of modalities (EFT, NLP, Matrix Reimprinting, EMDR and the Healing Code).
Luckily for us, healing and lasting change is possible. Our ACES don’t have to become the script for our adult lives. And we can go on to overcome, flourish and live normal, happy lives, no matter how many ACES we experienced.
Felitti VJ, Anda RF, et al. Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Am J Prev Med. 1998 May;14(4):245-58.