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How Childhood Trauma Effects Health

In a recent post, I mentioned my abiding interest in the Science Times section of the NY Times. My other loyalty, as many of you have also cultivated, is to NPR, public radio, particularly their interviews with various experts. So…one morning on my way to the gym I heard an interview about a scientific study that definitively addresses the connection between difficult early childhood experiences and future adverse effects on health. I was quite excited to hear about this research, which began in the 90’s, and how its conclusions are gaining acceptance within the medical community. As a psychologist who expounds on the mind/body connection and addresses childhood stress and trauma through character and somatic work, I was thrilled to hear about the research and its validation of the relationship between trauma and future health sequela.

This compelling interview with Robert Anda, MD, one of the co-principal investigators of the ACE Study, affirmed the basic tenets of mind/body psychotherapy (Orgonomy). This study definitively validates the strong relationship between trauma in childhood and sustained early stress resulting in overproduction of stress hormones (cortisol) and leading to profound impacts on the brain and the body. These effects manifest in future health problems such as: cardiovascular disease, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain, exhaustion, bone loss, and compromised immune function, among others. Therefore, early childhood trauma results in compromised health and disturbed mental and behavioral outcomes later in life such as: health-risk behaviors, disease, disability and early death.

If you are curious, calculate your ACE score. It is a simple 10-question questionnaire about your early childhood experiences. The questions determine if there was recurrent abuse (emotionally, physically or sexually), alcoholism or drug problems, incarceration, mental illness (chronic depression etc.), violence, single parent, and physical or emotional neglect in your childhood. The scoring method determines your exposure within each category. Then the points are added up. An ACE Score of 0 means no exposure in any categories of trauma. Or an ACE Score of 10 means exposure within all categories of trauma.

Dr. Anda stated that when they first developed this concept in the 1990’s the concept was unacceptable to most of the medical community. Medical doctors dismissed the benefit of determining potential roots of disease in adverse childhood experiences and would not, for various reasons, administer this simple questionnaire. The questionnaire gives a score that would determine if a patient was at risk of disease, disability and early death due to adverse childhood experiences. There are other economic, social, and cognitive consequences, and health-risk behaviors. One further consequence is disrupted neurodevelopment, altered brain structure and function from fear-based childhoods. My April post, Attachment Dyad Grows in the Brain discusses an aspect of this research.

Currently, the ACE Study is one of the largest scientific research studies of its kind, using mostly middle income Americans as subjects. 17,000 Kaiser volunteer patients are participating.   The study is an ongoing collaboration between the Centers of Disease Control Prevention and Kaiser. 50 scientific articles have been published, as well as conferences and workshops.

As children we cannot control our parents, the way they chose to live and the effects their lives had on us early on. Our parents had strengths and weaknesses and we were exposed from the moment of conception. We are responsible to work through the residual effects in our mind/body; and sort through our experiences and feel them through. When we are able to access our past experiences and gain insight, we can heal. When we can express what hasn’t been expressed, we can remove those disturbances from our body and rebalance our nervous system to minimize the production of stress hormone. We can provide ourselves healing and comfort. And we can consciously learn to change our health habits so we can heal.


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