“Traumatic experience early in life marks a person forever, pulls her out of line, saying, ‘Stay there. Don't move.’” - Jeffrey Eugenides
Many of us overcome difficult childhoods to lead healthy, fulfilling lives. Nevertheless, researchers are learning that a less-than-ideal start in life makes creating a healthy adulthood much more challenging.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist and traumatic stress expert, says that traumatic experiences in childhood shape the brain and he’s not talking about your personality or psychology, he’s talking about the actual structure of the biological organ. And it even goes beyond brain structure. Researchers have been able to show, in the lab, the epigenetic effects of toxic stress in childhood on all 23 chromosomes.
And it’s not just about those growing up in mine fields or households with sexual and physical abuse. Two-thirds of us have experienced at least one type of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), as defined here -- Got Your ACE Score? And the higher your score the higher your adult onset risk of chronic disease, mental illness, alcoholism, heart disease, cancer, suicide and being a victim of violence.
When The CDC says, “Two thirds of us” they mean everyone; not just marginalized poor income families. As researcher Dr. Robert Anda explains, “The 17,421 ACE Study participants were average Americans. Seventy-five percent were white, 11 percent Latino, 7.5 percent Asian and Pacific Islander, and 5 percent were black. They were middle-class, middle-aged, 36 percent had attended college and 40 percent had college degrees or higher. Since they were members of Kaiser Permanente, they all had jobs and great health care. Their average age was 57. This study is not about just ‘them.’ It’s about ‘us.’”
While prevention and breaking the cycle of trauma is ideal, there are ways to heal from toxic childhood stress. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk has conducted a study showing the benefits of Yoga in healing PTSD from current events and adverse childhood experiences.
He says, “As you grow up and get a more stable brain, these early traumatic events can still cause changes that make you hyper-alert to danger, and hypo-alert to the pleasures of everyday life. We found that yoga ... makes a substantial difference in the right direction [in healing therapy]. It's about becoming safe to feel what you feel. When you're traumatized you're afraid of what you're feeling, because your feeling is always terror, or fear or helplessness. I think these body-based techniques help you to feel what's happening in your body, and to breathe into it and not run away from it. So you learn to befriend your experience.”
Should you blame your childhood experiences for your love of beer and smokes or your failed marriages? Perhaps. But acknowledging the role Adverse Childhood Experiences have on your current mental and physical health is simply step one. Learning to recognize the resulting behaviors and then working towards healing with mindful based stress reduction techniques, like yoga, can help you make the changes needed to lead a more healthy, happy and fulfilling life.