Did you know that the likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease (or cancer, diabetes, heart disease) doubles or even triples if you experienced ongoing stress or trauma as a child? In one of the largest and longest studies ever conducted (and one of the least heard of), the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study, conducted by the national CDC (Centers for Disease Control) and Kaiser Permanente HMO, from 1995 through 1997, with over 17,000 participants, discovered that one of the greatest predictors of chronic disease in adulthood is chronic, unpredictable stressors, losses and adversities in childhood.
How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology
What hundreds of researchers across the globe are now discovering is this simple truth: your biography becomes your biology.
In her best-selling book, Childhood Disrupted, science journalist, Donna Jackson Nakazawa, tells us “the emotional trauma we suffer as children not only shapes our emotional lives as adults, it also affects our physical health, longevity, and overall wellbeing”. Scientists now know exactly how parents’ chronic fights, divorce, death in the family, being bullied or hazed, and growing up with a hypercritical, alcoholic, or mentally ill parent can leave permanent, physical “fingerprints” on our brains.
This is how it works: when children experience sudden or chronic adversity, trauma or toxic stress, it causes their body to release excessive stress hormones that create powerful changes in the body that actually alter their body chemistry and effectively rewire their brains and nervous systems. This causes the immune system and brain to react by resetting the response to stress as if it’s permanently on high alert. This chronic state of hyperarousal can have a damaging and devastating effect on the child’s emotional and physical health.
Even “Mild” Childhood Adversity Matters
Unfortunately, the chronic stress, adversity or trauma does not need to be severe to create damage to the brain and nervous system. Research findings showed that any one of the ten categories of adversities in the ACE test showed almost equal damage to the brain and nervous system. After examining the study’s result, gathered from over 17,000 persons who participated in the study, researchers found that while sexual and physical abuse have generally been considered two of the most traumatic events in childhood; surprisingly, “recurrent humiliation by a parent caused slightly more detrimental impact and was marginally correlated to a greater likelihood of adult illness and depression”. Jackson Nakasawa tells us in her book that “simply living with a parent who puts you down and humiliates you, or who is alcoholic or depressed can leave you with a profoundly hurtful ACE footprint and alter your brain and immunologic functioning for life.”
While the ten questions participants are asked on the test concern some of the more extreme types of adverse experiences and trauma in children, many of the ways that children are harmed by poor parenting have come to be seen as “normal” or “no big deal” leading most people to minimize their importance. Below is a list from the New York Times best seller, Healing the Child Within, by Charles L. Whitfield, M.D. showing some of the ways that children experience mental, emotional and spiritual trauma in childhood:
Ways Children Experience Mental, Emotional and Spiritual Trauma in Childhood
Overpowering or Bullying
Besides physical disease, such as autoimmunity, ACE’s also lead to other challenging symptoms that make life more difficult to navigate through the lifespan. Below are some of those symptoms:
Symptoms of Childhood Chronic Stress and Trauma
Emotional & psychological symptoms:
- Confusion, difficulty concentrating
- Anger, irritability, mood swings
- Anxiety and fear
- Guilt, shame, self-blame
- Withdrawing from others
- Feeling sad or hopeless
- Feeling disconnected or numb
- Shock, denial, or disbelief
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Being startled easily
- Difficulty concentrating
- Racing heartbeat
- Edginess and agitation
- Aches and pains
- Muscle tension
A Majority of Americans Have Experienced Significant Childhood Trauma
Surprisingly, 64% of all participants reported at least one childhood adversity, which puts them at greater risk of developing an adult onset chronic disease, and 87% of those who reported one ACE, reported more than one, upping their risk even greater.
You might wonder why this number is so high. Sadly, the vast majority of parents lack the skills necessary to avoid causing harm to their children, whether consciously or unconsciously. Due to a lack of understanding of what healthy parenting involves (due to poor parenting skills being passed on through generations and lack of parenting education in schools and society) as well as the widespread emotional and mental problems that many parents have from their own childhood experiences, poor parenting has been widespread from time immemorial. The truth is that most parents’ only education on parenting is how they were parented themselves, and most people parent the way they were parented. This reality was proven by the ACE study. Only 30% of the participants in the study reported no adverse childhood experiences.
While many people are able to connect their childhood adversities and traumas to the challenges, pain and suffering they experience in adulthood, such as poor relationships, lack of motivation, depression, anxiety, poor job performance, etc.; few people connect these childhood adverse experiences to the development of chronic diseases.
While awareness of the impact of adverse childhood pain and experiences on developing chronic illness in adulthood is still very low, the ACE Study has proven that your childhood experiences greatly influence your proclivity to illness in adulthood. It shows that depending on the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences patients had encountered could largely predict the amount of medical care they would need in adulthood – the higher the score, the higher the number of doctors they would’ve seen in the previous year, and the higher the number of physical symptoms that could not be explained.
Of course, adverse childhood experiences are not the only cause of autoimmunity (or other chronic illnesses). Genetics, exposure to toxins in our environment and in our foods, hidden infections, and everyday stressors also contribute heavily to the development of disease. But, to ignore the importance of adverse childhood pain in the development of your own disease will limit your potential for full healing and reversal from disease – of being able to experience freedom from the symptoms that autoimmunity brings to the lives of its sufferers, and from the chaos and suffering that limits your health and happiness.
You can take the ACE test here.
Fortunately, neuroscience has discovered that the damage caused by childhood adversity and trauma can be largely reversed with a variety of healing modalities, such as meditation, breathing, EFT, (tapping), EMDR, art therapy, equine therapy, Trauma Release Process, and others.
This week, maybe think about how you can create more “breathing space” in your life to reverse the chronic stress most of us are plagued with due to our crazy busy (and oftentimes unexamined) lives.
Wishing you a healthy, happy, and peaceful week.
Love and light,