“The past affects the present even without our being aware of it.”
― Francine Shapiro
Your therapist was right, your childhood matters! It may seem cliche but the truth is our past is inescapably linked to our present and what is exciting is the science is now there to prove it! This may sound like really bad news, however It can seem like we are constantly returning to our relationship with our parents, experiences we had repeatedly in school, even one-time traumatic events.
When encountering physical and emotional health issues in adulthood, it can be easy to look towards our current life for the cause, especially when there’s always a new lifestyle craze that promises to heal all wounds. Science is finding more and more, however, that the key to both our mental and physical health is actually hidden in our childhood, proving the importance of our therapist’s connection to our childhood.
After starting to explore the link between emotional and physical health, and then stumbling upon a relationship to childhood experiences, Dr. Felitti and Dr. Anda conducted the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. Felitti and Anda interviewed 17,000 patients with a survey of questions that focus on ten types of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to study the link between childhood adversity and adulthood health.
It turns out that childhood adversity is much more common than we realize. Even though participants were not troubled or disadvantaged, were in their 50s, and 75% were college-educated, two-thirds indicated that they had experienced at least one form of childhood adversity before the age of eighteen. Even though we don’t think of largely traumatic events as happening every day, many of the experiences that the ACE survey looks for are not as abnormal as we might think.
After finding levels of trauma that seemed to have been hidden in plain sight, Felitti and Anda found a correlation between the number of ACEs a person had experienced and an increased risk of illness in adulthood. An ACE score of 4 indicated that an individual was twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer than an individual with an ACE score of 0, and a score of 6 indicated a person’s life-space was likely to be shortened by 20 years.
Although we often associate adverse childhoods or experiences with an increase in drug abuse, which could certainly explain these correlations between ACE scores and health, science has since revealed that there is actually a link between higher levels of stress in childhood and brain developments which can later become biomedical disease.
The ways in which childhood trauma affects your biomedical health:
Damage to your DNA
Adverse childhood experiences can have such a fundamental impact that they can actually change your DNA. Telomeres, the caps of DNA which protect DNA from, show greater signs of deterioration in adults who experienced higher levels of stress earlier in life. As your telomeres erode, your probability of developing disease increases. As it turns out, our childhood trauma doesn’t just have a lasting effect on our minds but also on our bodies.
Changes in Brain Size
There is also a link between chronic childhood trauma and brain size. Chronic trauma, which can be caused by something considered as commonplace as family dysfunction, is linked to chemical changes in the grey matter of developing brains. When a child experiences emotional trauma, a hormone is released that shrinks the size of the developing hippocampus, which affects the child’s ability to process emotions and manage stress. MRI studies have found that the size of parts of the brain related to decision making and emotion and mood processing are affected by stress levels during developmental stages.
However, just because these areas of our brain shrink doesn’t mean the amount of activity happening in them does. For example, the shrunken amygdala of a person who experienced trauma in childhood often shows signs of hyperactivity, even to small stressors. Because the amygdala is smaller, lower levels of stress can have a higher affect.
Stress Hormones and Inflammation
A history of childhood stress can also cause chronic inflammation, or even a process of mild inflammation regardless of the presence of an external trigger. Your body’s immune response to stress is to release hormones to help us respond to stressful situations. In a high stress event that happens once, for example almost being hit by an oncoming car during rush hour, after the threat has passed our hormone levels return to normal and our bodies return to a state of rest. This process is natural, and even helpful for us to respond to the situation.
However, when we are in a constant state of stress, for example after experiencing years of humiliation from a parent, of consistent parental fighting, or of persistent bullying at school, our body releases the stress hormones without stop. Because the perceived threat doesn’t go away, neither do the hormones, which increases the level of inflammation in our bodies and slows down the fight-or-flight response. The increased level of inflammation can lead to a lifetime of inflammation and disease, including cancer, asthma, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and chronic fatigue.
The increased level of inflammation and stress response hormones in the body during childhood can cause developmental changes, too. In a developing brain, chemical changes send signals to disable genes that regulate the stress response, leaving a child’s response to stimuli altered for life.
Although these changes often happen in childhood, health problems in adulthood are rarely linked to childhood adversity and then become harder to treat. In Felitti and Anda’s study, 18% of participants who had an ACE score of 1 experienced some form of clinical depression. As the ACE score goes up, so does the percentage of participants who reported experiencing depression. The most prevalent indicator of adult depression in the study was the category of childhood emotional abuse.
We know all of this research can feel defeating; it can be hard to face, especially because we can’t change the childhood we had. But, it is largely important to consider the science when looking towards the future and healing. Without the understanding of how our childhood has had an effect on our current health, we are unable to process the root of the health problems we face.
Not only does our brain’s plasticity enable us to heal biologically, but with the knowledge of the relationship between childhood traumas and physical health, we can direct our focus on healing the wounds we acquired in childhood and improve both our emotional and physical health together.
To learn more about how your past is affecting your present and how to change it join Connected Heart.
Help us create a world of Connected Hearts!
Wendy and Robin