• Susan Morris

Addressing Early Trauma May Improve Adult Health

We all enter the world a blank slate. Free of thoughts and ideas. Who we eventually become is determined by the upbringing and experiences that fill that slate. We don’t get to choose who will raise us. We don’t control whether they’ll be caring and loving, or distant and rejective.

If you were born lucky, home can be a pillar of strength. Supportive, safe, nurturing, and protective. A safety base from which we venture into the world. The root of our self-definition. A secure place to dream.

For those of us less fortunate, home can be a backdrop for pain. The place where growth is stunted. Where nurturing is nonexistent, and dreams are slain. A place where love is replaced by apathy, compassion replaced by indifference.

Trauma seems to be a fact of life. Did you know that if you experience traumatic events in your childhood and your teenage years, it may put you at risk for chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance abuse later in life?

A Childhood Filled with Trauma

Now called- “Adverse Childhood Experiences”

Examples of what an ACE is:

• Experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect

• Witnessing violence in the home or community

• Having a family member with a mental illness or substance abuse problem.

• Divorce

ACEs are more common than you think.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

nearly a third of youth in the U.S. age 12-18 have experienced two or more types of childhood adversity that are likely to affect their physical and mental health as adults.

I grew up with a father who was an alcoholic, a sister with a mental illness, and my parents divorced when I was fifteen. Those alone gave me a score of three on the ACE Quiz (see below). My total score was seven. I’d always thought that the cause of my anxiety, panic attacks, and depression was related to my upbringing, but I had nothing to prove it.

I’d read about the difference between acute and chronic stress and how prolonged stress can negatively affect one’s physical and mental being. It’s the chronic stress from ACEs that can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress.

The rougher your childhood is, the higher chance of illnesses later in life.

What about the positive experiences we have in life? They must account for something.

Resiliency Matters

Like an island of light in a sea of darkness, one loving person in your life can make a difference. My grandmother was that buffering adult—soft, patient, loving. I felt safe sitting on her lap, her arms wrapped around me. Perhaps from her, I learned resiliency.

Although it wasn’t in childhood, I continued to find mentors along my way. There was Kathy in my twenties, Jean in my thirties, and Diane in my forties. All in their way helped me healthily navigate life, giving me the kind of support and navigation tips that I didn’t receive as a child. All in their way, helping me build resiliency.

Now when a childhood memory comes up or gets triggered by something, I turn to the tools that I’ve gathered over the years; a good therapist, journaling, yoga, meditation, and walking in nature to remind myself that I am safe and loved.

Reliving the pain and letting go of the past is the only way past it.

As adults, when we recognize our childhood exposure to ACEs, it can be empowering. The only way to heal is to walk through the pain of your childhood. Experience the feelings that you numbed at the time. When you can speak about the trauma you experienced, that’s when you begin to heal. Even though it’s painstaking and may take you to your knees, you will see life differently– and be able to live in the light after the storm.

We do not need to stay stuck in that space that we no longer fit in. The defining moment comes when you accept what has happened and decide to move on. Choose to live a life of happiness; where self-nurturing is omnipresent, dreams are possible, and there are no limits set on your emotional growth.

Luckily, there is good news. Recognizing exposure to ACEs early in childhood and acting with appropriate interventions may change how trauma affects us—hopefully leading to better future generations.

We are all defined by our upbrings. In the future, instead of asking, what is the matter with this person? We can ask, “what has happened to this person that has made him/her this way?”

(The “Ace Quiz” is made up of 10 questions and worthwhile to take to determine your risk factors. You can view it on the CDC website).