How to recover from Adverse Childhood Experiences
Abuse can take part in people’s lives at an early age. Children can go through Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that are stressful/ traumatic events. High doses of these traumas impact the brain system, the immune system, and the hormonal system. People exposed to very high doses have a reduced life expectancy of 20 years. Samhsa.gov lists ACEs:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Intimate partner violence Mother treated violently]
- Substance misuse within a household
- Household mental illness
- Parental separation or divorce
- Incarcerated household member
The interesting fact about the ACE study is that it started in an obesity clinic. Acestoolhigh.com states that Dr. Vincent Felitti didn’t understand why 50 percent of people were dropping out of his weight loss program in 1985.
He found out when they lost weight, they gained it back. He decided to interview people in the program to find the core issue. He would ask questions such as:
How much did you weigh when you were born? How much did you weigh when you started first grade? How much did you weigh when you entered high school? How old were you when you became sexually active? How old were you when you married?
During one interview with a patient, he misspoke and asked, “How much did you weigh when you were first sexually active?” The woman’s response was forty pounds at the age of and that it was with her father.
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.
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.
Practice Mindfulness Meditation
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 helps 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 tells 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.
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 the 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.
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.
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.
Adverse childhood experiences are struggles people go through, but they can always find a way to overcome them and take back control in their lives. They are the boss of their bodies, not their experiences.
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