The impact of childhood trauma

I’ve worked with a lot of people with addiction (and I’ve struggled with addiction myself).   At some point I realized that among the people I knew well with addiction, the only ones who hadn’t told me about awful things that happened to them as children were the ones who hadn’t told me anything about their childhood.  That thought got me interested in childhood trauma, and I began reading and trying to learn more, as well as listening (which I’d already been doing).  I then ran across the ACE Study.

ACE Study

ACE stands for adverse childhood experiences.  This study took the medical records of over 17,000 people and correlated them with the results of a survey.  The survey asked them questions about negative things that may have happened to them as children.  The negative things were actually categories of things.  They involved physical, verbal or sexual abuse, neglect, divorce, having a parent die, seeing your mother struck, living with a person who had a mental illness or substance abuse problem or who became incarcerated.  They counted how many categories (of the 10) that each person had experienced.  Then they looked at the medical records.

The results were a bit stunning.  The main finding was that higher the person’s ACE score, the more at risk they were for developing a host of physical and psychological problems as adults.   That’s right, physical problems.  Not only were the folks with higher scores more likely to fall into addiction, anxiety or depression, they were also more likely to develop heart disease and obesity.  Now, this data has been looked at very closely and many research papers have been written about it.  Problem after problem, condition after condition, including antisocial behavior–all are more likely to befall people who had painful and awful things happen to them as children.  It’s pretty shocking.

It’s also terribly unfair.  Unfortunately, we all often participate in making it more unfair.  Every time we think that addiction or overeating is about willpower, every time that we assume heart disease is all about diet, we are neglecting one major thing that (for many people) can cause or worsen all of them:  adverse childhood experiences.  Trauma and loss.  Bad stuff.

What to do?

We go to doctors to get better, to feel better, and they often give us pills.  Not just pills for heart disease, but pills for anxiety and depression and many other things.  But there’s often a missing piece–the unacknowledged and untreated pain and damage created a long time ago.  If there was ever an argument for the need for trauma treatment, this study is it.   (I’m not at all putting down the good work doctors do–and I should note that the principle investigator on the ACE study is a medical doctor.  Many of us get significant help through medical treatment.  But many of us also need more than that.)

Of course, not every child has a high ACE score.  But a lot of us have a few, and a few of us have a lot.  The impact of childhood trauma is something we should acknowledge, something we should look at.  It’s something we should try to address.

A Personal Story

How to do that?  Well, we can start by not blaming children for what happens to them.  Years ago, I was teaching high school, and I had a student who “gave me a lot of trouble.”  I sent him to the office a lot.  Over and over.  Then one day I was talking with the assistant principal about him, and I found out what had happened.  My student, 16, and his 15 year old brother had been abandoned by their parents.  Just left.  They were living with their 19-year old brother who was working and trying to keep it all together so his brothers could stay in school.  How’s that for an adverse childhood experience?  After I learned that, I had a bit of a different attitude about my student.  I started trying to connect with him a little more.  I was young and didn’t know a lot about how to do that, but it was something.  So things went a bit better after that.  I didn’t just stop enforcing rules, and he didn’t completely stop breaking them, but things got better.

If you want to find your ACE score and read about the study, there’s a great website here.

We’ll keep talking about this problem.  And about what can be done to address it.

 

 

Childhood Trauma

What is complex childhood trauma?

Childhood usually involves a few traumatic events: accidents or injuries, unintended separations, grief over minor losses, etc. Events such as these can have some long-term impacts, but often they don’t. However, some children experience things that are usually more serious: divorce, death of a parent, ongoing abuse or neglect, a parent with addiction or mental health problems, etc. These usually involve a disruption or difficulty with an important relationship. In these cases, we talk about complex childhood trauma (or developmental trauma). [Look forward to my talking about this regularly in later posts.]

Impacts

It turns out that these kinds of events or situations can have very damaging long-term impacts on a person’s health. They can increase your chances of developing things like heart disease, obesity and other physical problems as well as mental health issues like depression, anxiety or addiction. [More about the research on this.] In other words, some childhood events can create many different ongoing difficulties. Many people are unaware of this connection, including some in the health fields.

Why is this connection important? For a simple reason: treating the wrong health condition doesn’t always help. If you go to the doctor for a broken arm and she gives you antibiotics, well, your arm won’t get infected, but it also won’t heal correctly. This can happen in therapy. A person will try to get help for depression or anxiety, and they may get medication for it (which can be helpful) and may get some therapy or counseling to gain some coping strategies (which is also helpful). But if the underlying cause is childhood trauma, and that doesn’t get treated, problems often persist.

Treatment

Some people say, “well, you can’t change the past, so you might as well figure out how to live with it.” In my view, that’s both true and false. It’s true that we can’t change past events, and we can’t change the way we reacted at the time, or the effects it has had up to now. But there is a lot more that can be done than just “learning to live with it.” It turns out that we can actually change what has happened in our bodies as a result of trauma.

Our bodies? That sounds weird. But let’s think about it carefully. Heart disease happens in the body. Depression affects the brain and the chemistry of the blood. Anxiety is mostly physical—heart and thoughts racing, tightness in the chest, shaking, sweating.   And most PTSD symptoms are things we can’t consciously control—flashbacks, feelings of unreality, fear, hopelessness, intrusive thoughts about the situation, etc.

Working with the body

For this reason, many of the modern, cutting-edge approaches to trauma treatment are based in the body (we say they are “somatic”).   Things such as EMDR, Yoga, acupuncture and massage all have been found to be helpful. I work with a somatic trauma therapy called Trauma Dynamics. It targets the effects that events and situations have had on our nervous systems, particularly the parts we can’t control. This somatic PTSD therapy is only a few decades old, and is still developing. But there is evidence that it’s extremely powerful, even in cases of complex childhood trauma.

So it turns out that healing is possible. We can’t change the past, but we can change the effects it has had on us. That’s good, good news for everyone.