Cutting-edge research tells us that experiencing childhood emotional trauma can play a large role in whether we develop physical disease in adulthood. In Part 1 of this series we looked at the growing scientific link between childhood adversity and adult physical disease. This research tells us that what doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger; far more often, the opposite is true.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—which include emotional or physical neglect; verbal humiliation; growing up with an addicted or mentally ill family member; and parental abandonment, divorce, or loss — can harm developing brains, predisposing them to autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer, depression, and a number of other chronic conditions, decades after the trauma took place.
Recognizing that chronic childhood stress can play a role—along with genetics and other factors—in developing adult illnesses and relationship challenges, can be enormously freeing. If you have been wondering why you’ve been struggling a little too hard for a little too long with your emotional and physical well-being —feeling as if you’ve been swimming against some invisible current that never ceases — this “aha” can come as a welcome relief. Finally, you can begin to see the current and understand how it’s been working steadily against you all of your life.
Once we understand how the past can spill into the present, and how a tough childhood can become a tumultuous, challenging adulthood, we have a new possibility of healing. As one interviewee in my new book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal, said, when she learned about Adverse Childhood Experiences for the first time, “Now I understand why I’ve felt all my life as if I’ve been trying to dance without hearing any music.” Suddenly, she felt the possibility that by taking steps to heal from the emotional wounds of the past she might find a new layer of healing in the present.
There is truth to the old saying that knowledge is power. Once you understand that your body and brain have been harmed by the biological impact of early emotional trauma, you can at last take the necessary, science-based steps to remove the fingerprints that early adversity left on your neurobiology. You can begin a journey to healing, to reduce your proclivity to inflammation, depression, addiction, physical pain, and disease.
Science tells us that biology does not have to be destiny. ACEs can last a lifetime but they don’t have to. We can reboot our brains. Even if we have been set on high reactive mode for decades or a lifetime, we can still dial it down. We can respond to life’s inevitable stressors more appropriately and shift away from an overactive inflammatory response. We can become neurobiologically resilient. We can turn bad epigenetics into good epigenetics and rescue ourselves.
Today, researchers recognize a range of promising approaches to help create new neurons (known as neurogenesis), make new synaptic connections between those neurons (known as synaptogenesis), promote new patterns of thoughts and reactions, bring underconnected areas of the brain back online—and reset our stress response so that we decrease the inflammation that makes us ill.
We have the capacity, within ourselves, to create better health. We might call this brave undertaking “the neurobiology of awakening.”
Here are 8 steps to try:
1. Take the ACE Questionnaire.
The single most important step you can take toward healing and transformation is to fill out the ACE Questionnaire for yourself and share your results with your health-care practitioner. For many people, taking the 10-question survey “helps to normalize the conversation about Adverse Childhood Experiences and their impact on our lives,” says Vincent Felitti, co-founder of the ACE Study. “When we make it okay to talk about what happened, it removes the power that secrecy so often has.”
You’re not asking your healthcare practitioner to act as your therapist, or to change your prescriptions; you’re simply acknowledging that there might be a link between your past and your present. Ideally, given the recent discoveries in the field of ACE research, your doctor will also acknowledge that this link is plausible, and add some of the following modalities to your healing protocol.
2. Begin Writing to Heal.
Think about writing down your story of childhood adversity, using a technique psychologists call “writing to heal.” James Pennebaker, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, developed this assignment, which demonstrates the effects of writing as a healing modality. He suggests: “Over the next four days, write down your deepest emotions and thoughts about the emotional upheaval that has been influencing your life the most. In your writing, really let go and explore the event and how it has affected you. You might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now…Write continuously for twenty minutes a day.”
When Pennebaker had students complete this assignment, their grades went up. When adults wrote to heal, they made fewer doctors’ visits and demonstrated changes in their immune function. The exercise of writing about your secrets, even if you destroy what you’ve written afterward, has been shown to have positive health effects.
A growing body of research indicates that individuals who’ve practiced mindfulness meditation and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) show an increase in gray matter in the same parts of the brain that are damaged by Adverse Childhood Experiences and shifts in genes that regulate their physiological stress response. According to Trish Magyari, LCPC, a mindfulness-based psychotherapist and researcher who specializes in trauma and illness, adults suffering from PTSD due to childhood sexual abuse who took part in a “trauma-sensitive” MBSR program, had less anxiety and depression, and demonstrated fewer PTSD symptoms, even two years after taking the course.
Many meditation centers offer MBSR classes and retreats, but you can practice anytime in your own home. Choose a time and place to focus on your breath as it enters and leaves your nostrils; the rise and fall of your chest; the sensations in your hands or through the whole body; or sounds within or around you. If you get distracted, just come back to your anchor. Here are some tips from Tara Brach, psychologist and meditation teacher, to get you started on your mindfulness journey.
There are many medications you can take that dampen the sympathetic nervous system (which ramps up your stress response when you come into contact with a stressor), but there aren’t any medications that boost the parasympathetic nervous system (which helps to calm your body down after the stressor has passed). Your breath is the best natural calming treatment—and it has no side effects.
When children face ACEs, they often store decades of physical tension from a fight, flight, or freeze state of mind in their bodies. PET scans show that yoga decreases blood flow to the amygdala, the brain’s alarm center, and increases blood flow to the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex, which help us to react to stressors with a greater sense of equanimity. Yoga has also be found to increase levels of GABA—or gamma-aminobutyric acid—a chemical that improves brain function, promotes calm, and helps to protect us against depression and anxiety.
Sometimes, the long-lasting effects of childhood trauma are just too great to tackle on our own. In these cases, says Jack Kornfield, psychologist and meditation teacher, “meditation is not always enough.” We need to bring unresolved issues into a therapeutic relationship, and get back-up in unpacking the past. When we partner with a skilled therapist to address the adversity we may have faced decades ago, those negative memories become paired with the positive experience of being seen by someone who accepts us as we are—and a new window to healing opens.
Part of the power of therapy lies in allowing ourselves, finally, to form an attachment to a safe person. A therapist’s unconditional acceptance helps us to modify the circuits in our brain that tell us that we can’t trust anyone, and grow new, healthier neural connections. It can also help us to heal the underlying, cellular damage of traumatic stress, down to our DNA. In one study, patients who underwent therapy showed changes in the integrity of their genome—even a year after their regular sessions ended.
6. EEG Neurofeedback
Electroencephalographic (EEG) Neurofeedback is a clinical approach to healing childhood trauma in which patients learn to influence their thoughts and feelings by watching their brain’s electrical activity in real-time, on a laptop screen. Someone hooked up to the computer via electrodes on his scalp might see an image of a field; when his brain is under-activated in a key area, the field, which changes in response to neural activity, may appear to be muddy and gray, the flowers wilted; but when that area of the brain reactivates, it triggers the flowers to burst into color and birds to sing. With practice, the patient learns to initiate certain thought patterns that lead to neural activity associated with pleasant images and sounds.
You might think of a licensed EEG Neurofeedback therapist as a musical conductor, who’s trying to get different parts of the orchestra to play a little more softly in some cases, and a little louder in others, in order to achieve harmony. After just one EEG Neurofeedback session, patients showed greater neural connectivity and improved emotional resilience, making it a compelling option for those who’ve suffered the long-lasting effects of chronic, unpredictable stress in childhood.
7. EMDR Therapy
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a potent form of psychotherapy that helps individuals to remember difficult experiences safely and relate those memories in ways that no longer cause pain in the present. Here’s how it works: EMDR-certified therapists help patients to trigger painful emotions. As these emotions lead the patients to recall specific difficult experiences, they are asked to shift their gaze back and forth rapidly, often by following a pattern of lights or a wand that moves from right to left, right to left, in a movement that simulates the healing action of REM sleep.
The repetitive directing of attention in EMDR induces a neurobiological state that helps the brain to re-integrate neural connections that have been dysregulated by chronic, unpredictable stress and past experiences. This re-integration can, in turn, lead to a reduction in the episodic, traumatic memories we store in the hippocampus, and downshift the amygdala’s activity. Other studies have shown that EMDR increases the volume of the hippocampus.
EMDR therapy has been endorsed by the World Health Organization as one of only two forms of psychotherapy for children and adults in natural disasters and war settings.
8. Rally Community Healing
Often, ACEs stem from bad relationships—neglectful relatives, schoolyard bullies, abusive partners—but the right kinds of relationships can help to make us whole again. When we find people who support us, when we feel “tended and befriended,” our bodies and brains have a better shot at healing. Research has found that having strong social ties improves outcomes for women with breast cancer, multiple sclerosis, and other diseases. In part, that’s because positive interactions with others boost our production of oxytocin, a “feel-good” hormone that dials down the inflammatory stress response. If you’re at a loss for ways to connect, try a mindfulness meditation community or an MBSR class, or pass along the ACE Questionnaire or even my newest book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal, to family and friends to spark important, meaningful conversations.
You're Not Alone
Whichever modalities you and your physician choose to implement, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re not alone. When you begin to understand that your feelings of loss, shame, guilt, anxiety, or grief are shared by so many others, you can lend support and swap ideas for healing.
When you embrace the process of healing despite your Adverse Childhood Experiences, you don't just become who you might have been if you hadn't encountered childhood suffering in the first place. You gain something better—the hard-earned gift of life wisdom, which you bring forward into every arena of your life. The recognition that you have lived through hard times drives you to develop deeper empathy, seek more intimacy, value life's sweeter moments, and treasure your connectedness to others and to the world at large. This is the hard-won benefit of having known suffering.
Best of all, you can find ways to start right where you are, no matter where you find yourself.