“Childhood Disrupted” by Donna Jackson Nakazawa explores the lasting impact childhood trauma can have on your biology.
The book reveals links between trauma in our early years to autoimmune diseases, why a difficult childhood affects women more than men, what you can do to heal, and how to shield your own child from such experiences.
Imagine picking a man or woman out of a crowd, and mentally diving into their minds, exploring their intimate memories and experiences.
Go deep enough and you are guaranteed to find an unfortunate childhood experience, that left a permanent mark.
Sad as they are, these experiences shape our personalities, and prepare us for the hardness of life.
But going past certain limits turns these experiences into traumas with long term consequences, called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE’s for short.
A child carries these ACE’s into adulthood, and can cause a host of psychological and physical problems.
To first understand ACE’s, we’ll need to take a look into the mechanism that causes it: our biological stress response
How stress works
Our body’s stress mechanism works in two stages.
First, is the preparation phase:
It’s the middle of the night, and you hear loud noises coming from outside the bedroom, somewhere at the ground floor. The sleepyness fades, adrenaline kicks in, your mind clarifies.
Your body anticipates an imminent threat, and readies you for it, either by meeting it head on in a fight, or by avoiding it in a flight response.
A few seconds later you realize it’s just your son, meandering through the kitchen for his midnight snack.
The stress response relaxes as the pituitary glands cuts its secretion of cortisol, a major stress hormone. Your muscles unwind, and a sense of calm returns.
Moderate amounts of stress can actually strengthen your body and mind for future difficult experiences. But over the long term, stress hormones such as epinephrine will damage your blood vessels, and put you at risk of heart attacks. Cortisol increases your appetite, which then leads to weight gain.
Moderate amounts of stress makes us stronger.
An overprotective parent can be a liability for the future development of a child, since he limits their access to challenges and setbacks that build character and strength.
However, the basic logic behind this is sound, since children are much more susceptible to stress compared to adults. For them, the traumatic childhood ends up modifying their genetic code, in particular the genes responsible for the stress response. As a result, these kids will grow up to be more vulnerable and sensitive to stress than their peers.
However, scientists discovered that moderate amounts of stress exposure benefited a person’s health.
In one experiment, researchers wanted to see how patients suffering from back pain coped with the symptoms; so they organized three groups, based on the quality of their childhoods:
- A happy and normal childhood.
- Moderately stressful one, but within tolerance limits.
- Tough and extremely traumatic childhood.
Patients in the happy childhood group, as well as the traumatic one, reported their back pain as a more crippling condition compared to the people in the moderately stressful childhood group.
From all appearances, the children who suffered a moderately stressful childhood turned up to be hardier adults, both physically and psychologically.
But the magic line dividing a character building personality from a damaging one is very thin.
How negative childhood experiences impact us in adulthood
Childhood magnifies the impact of every experience of ours, since everything is new, and our newly created memories serve as a sort of looking glass through which we interpret the world. Unfortunately, the same principle applies to stressful events that psychologists call Adverse Childhood Experiences.
In most cases, an ACE is a long term event, where a child is continuously exposed to a stressors, such as:
- Physical abuse.
- Sexual abuse.
- Emotional abuse.
- Persistent marital conflict or divorce.
- Substance abuse within the home.
But singular, and extremely traumatic experiences can also lead to an ACE.
A common thread to both these types is the absence of a parent or adult that provides guidance to the child so he can safely process the experience. Worse yet, a lot of the times parents themselves will be directly responsible for the ACE.
When she was 5 years old, Kat found the body of her dead mother, killed at the hands of Kat’s father.
The event had a long lasting impact on Kat’s body. Growing into adulthood, she suffered chronic physical pain, while her joints were swollen and sore. A low count of white blood cells weakened her immune system, and rashes periodically covered her body.
In her mid 30’s, most caregivers suspected Kat suffered from a bone marrow deficiency. A doctor however, unearthed the connection between Kat’s childhood trauma, and her current physical illness.
In Stephen’s case, the trauma was a prolonged one. His parents were both successful investment bankers, and hoped that their son would somehow live up to their standards, and be just as savvy and precocious.
In his childhood spirit, Stephen often missed his parent’s high expectations.
But they made sure Stephen knew how much of a disappointment that was. Even a minor event, such as losing a flip-flop, was a just cause for them to demean him.
As an adult, Stephen developed attention deficit disorder and depression. The high expectations placed on him manifested themselves as performance anxiety when placed in competitive situations. He withdrew from friendships and went bald following an auto-immune disease.
But a more insidious side of ACE’s is that they also impact a person’s mental health, not just the physical one. Studies have pointed out that an ACE can actually decrease the size of a person’s brain.
The impact of ACEs on brain size
Using magnetic resonance imaging, researchers found a correlation: subjects who lived through a traumatic childhood tended to have a smaller brain size.
The most affected regions were the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus, two crucial parts of the brain responsible for decision making and processing fear.
As it so happens, these two parts of our brain are also responsible for managing our emotions. A troubled childhood shrinks these in size, and so too does the person’s ability to deal with stressful and emotionally challenging situations.
But an ACE doesn’t just shrink our brain, it kills neurons too, severely impacting the development of complex mental processes and brain functions. The effect becomes even more pronounced as the child passes adolescence, a taxing process on brain development.
Compared to a healthy person, someone who suffered from a traumatic childhood starts life at an immediate disadvantage.
Women are more predisposed to be struck by ACE’s than men
Research has shown that women suffer more from ACE’s than men. The most likely explanation is the different hormonal structure of the two genders.
It’s no secret that women produce more estrogen than men. On the one hand, estrogen helps to produce antibodies, but on the other it will also generate autoantibodies. These in turn cause a host of negative health effects, since they attack the hosts own cells and organs.
Women also produce more glucocorticoids than men. Cortisol, the chemical most closely associated with the body’s stress response, is the most popularly known chemical from this group.
Normally, glucocorticoids cancel out a large part of the inflammation caused by estrogen autoantibodies. However, when a girl experiences an ACE, her GC count drops significantly, leaving her exposed to the uncontrolled effects of antibodies.
This leads to autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, lupus or thyroiditis.
On top of that, over the course of their lives, women suffer from higher levels of socially conditioned stress. For example, a woman has to worry more about her physical appearance or attractiveness, and also carries a disproportionate amount of child rearing.
This is a non-exhaustive list of side effects generated by ACEs, and is meant to underline how important it is for parents to shield their children from such experiences, while not being overprotective.
Parents can spread their stress to their children
Emotions are contagious, and stress makes no exception. Being near a visibly stressed spouse, friend or co-worker will elevate our own stress levels. This effect is even more pronounced on children.
In one experiment, researchers at the University of California tested and measured this hypothesis.
They first analyzed the stress levels of mothers in the presence of their babies in order to obtain a baseline state, after which parent and child were separated.
The mothers then had to hold a 5 minute prepared speech in front of audience, and answer questions for another 5 minutes.
The researchers divided the mothers into 3 groups:
- One group received positive feedback.
- The second one got negative feedback.
- The final group didn’t receive any sort of feedback from the audience.
As expected, mothers who received negative feedback reported cardiac stress and a negative mood.
Children reunited with their mothers from the negative feedback group immediately picked up their mother’s bad spirits, and had an elevated heart rate as a result.
But a parent’s emotional wellbeing also affects his child, not just his stress levels.
Emotionally distant or depressed parents will often leave their children alone as they deal with their fears and anxieties. Without parental guidance, the child’s emotional problems grow and fester, leading to chronic stress.
By the age of 5 or 7, these chronic problems manifest themselves as frequent headaches or stomachaches.
Issues that arise from a traumatic childhood are deep seated and hard to reach. Nevertheless, there are a number of ways for them to be treated, partially or completely.
Recovery from ACE with mediation and forgiveness.
Pain caused by childhood trauma and ACEs doesn’t need to be permanent. There are ways to treat it.
The first method is meditation and mindfulness, techniques that research has proven more than once are effective at diminishing stress levels.
For instance, after an 8 week program of meditation and mindfullness, participants reported less anxiety and depression. But the real kicker was density growth in the brain’s hippocampus region, which has important functions in memory creation and conflict processing.
And it only took 8 weeks for these benefits to become apparent. Turns out meditation and mindfulness are the real deal, and not just flights of fancy. But why do these methods work so well?
Meditation and mindfulness cut you off from past traumatic experiences and future worries, and focuses your mind on the present. This means you stop reliving harmful memories, and give yourself emotional space you can fill up with other, more positive feelings.
As a beginner, you might find meditation a difficult process at first. To ease into it, stick to a regular schedule and the same location. You’ll want to do it in a spot that is both familiar and safe, which in turn encourages you to relax and not worry about your immediate surroundings.
Forgiveness is the other method that can help you move on from the past trauma. It might seem counterintuitive, but you are the main person that benefits from it, not the forgiven person.
Holding a grudge and resentment is emotionally draining, while filling you up with negative sentiments. When you forgive someone, you release yourself from the effort of holding these emotions, and allow yourself to move on. The emotional space that once filled up that part of your mind is now empty and weightless.
Just as with meditation, forgiveness is something you can teach yourself to do. One such method that works is James Gordon’s four step forgiveness meditation.
As an adult, it is possible to heal yourself from the effect of ACE’s. But a bigger challenge is to protect and guide your own child through his early years, and set him up for a healthy and normal life.
As a parent, aim for self-improvement and form positive associations for you and your children
As a parent, you should aim to constantly improve yourself instead of being perfect. Learn from your own mistakes, and move past the difficult episodes in life, so you can free yourself up to have other, more positive experiences with your children. You want them to have happy memories of you as a parent, and carry these for the rest of their lives.
The author herself is an example of this. Her entire family traversed a difficult period as she coped with multiple auto-immune diseases. Nevertheless, she didn’t want her children to associate her with the drudgery of hospital trips, medication and illness. So she made it a priority to give them positive memories from hiking trails, lazy holidays at the beach or cooking food.
If you improve yourself, and live a positive life, your children will notice and see you in such a way too.
Another important task of a parent, is to let your children experience and solve challenges on their own. This helps them grow and obtain the skills and fortitude required to deal with the hardships of life.
The real trick is to find that fine balance, where they can learn from tough experiences, but not be overwhelmed and hurt by them.
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