The effect of unresolved emotional trauma from childhood on health across a lifetime is possibly the most under-exposed risk factor for all major chronic health problems in the world – Huge studies by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente starting with 17,500 adults in the mid 1990s confirm stunning statistics.
No one can afford to ignore the impact of “adverse childhood events” or “ACEs” on their health, and we must ensure more and more health practitioners become aware of these ACE’s
The studies showed that 67% of all adults had experienced at least 1 ACE. Of those, 80% had experienced more than one. Having a high level of ACEs are correlated with a dramatic increase in the risk of developing 7 of the top 10 causes of death.
If you have 4 or more ACEs – your relative risk of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) is 2.5 times higher versus people with 0 ACEs, hepatitis risk is 2.5 times higher, depression 4.5 times higher, cancer is 2.5 times higher, diabetes is 1.6 times higher, a stroke is 2.6 times higher and being suicidal is 12 times higher.
8 or more ACEs triple risk of lung cancer, and increase the risk 3.5 times of heart disease.
A person with 6 or more ACEs has a reduced lifespan of 20 years.
Research has shown there is a 6 fold increased risk of chronic fatigue syndrome with ACEs. One study showed 60% of women with Fibromyalgia had suffered sexual abuse.
In 2009, Felitti and Anda from the original CDC and Kaiser Permanente study completed another study, specifically on cumulative adverse childhood events stress and adulthood autoimmunity, surveying 15,300 adults.
They found that if you had 2 or more ACEs, you’re 100% more likely to be diagnosed with rheumatic diseases. The correlation of autoimmunity onset in adulthood for women and ACE’s is as strongly linked as smoking and lung cancer.
In the late ’80s, the original Kaiser Permanente researcher, Dr Felitti began a systematic study of obese people, and discovered that 50% had been sexually abused as children. That rate is more than 50% higher than the rate normally reported by women, and more than triple the average rate in men. This was the original study that triggered the larger studies in the 1990s.
Being subjected to moderate abuse during childhood results in a 34% increased risk of developing obesity as an adult, and a 50% increased risk of developing obesity in adulthood if exposed to severe abuse according to a meta-analysis carried out by Karolinska Institutet in Sweden which included a total of 112,000 participants and published Obesity Reviews in 2014
Calculate Your Ace Score “ACE” is the abbreviation for ‘adverse childhood experience.” There are ten types of ACEs as defined by the original and ongoing collaborative research between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA, and Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, CA. In the first study completed in 1998 of 17,500 adults ACEs included:
Parents separating or divorce, Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, Physical and emotional neglect, Domestic violence, Mental illness in the family, Substance abuse, Incarceration by a related family member.
The questions below cover all ten ACEs and were originally designed by the co-principal investigators of the studies, Robert F. Anda, MD, MS, with the CDC; and Vincent J. Felitti, MD, with Kaiser Permanente:
Prior to your 18th birthday:
- Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt? No___If Yes, add 1 point __
- Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured? Yes, add 1 point __
- Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you? If Yes, add 1 point __
- Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other? If Yes, add 1 point __
- Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it? If Yes, add 1 point __
- Were your parents ever separated or divorced? If Yes, add 1 point __
- Was your mother or stepmother: Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife? Yes, add 1 point __ 8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs? If Yes, add 1 point __ 9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide? If Yes, add 1 point __ 10. Did a household member go to prison? If Yes, add 1 point __
Now add up your “Yes” answers: _ This is your ACE Score:_____
Your total ACE’s are only a guide and the original ten types of ACEs described above are certainly not an exhaustive list, they were simply mentioned the most by a group of 300 people originally interviewed at Kaiser Permanente and were well researched in the published literature.
To get your “Extended ACE Score” which covers adverse childhood experiences not included in the original research, consider the the additional questions below and update your score.
Extended ACE Score – Below are additional common ACE’s:
- Were you bullied, taunted or shunned at school? If Yes, add 1 point___
- Did you experience racism or homophobia or similar forms of hate abuse? If Yes, add 1 point____
- Did you experience a serious physical trauma, illness or accident in childhood which required hospitalization? If Yes, add 1 point____ 4. Did you experience a difficult or traumatic birth? If Yes, add 1 point___ 5. Did you witness violence or abuse of a sibling, parent or family member? If Yes, add 1 point____ 6. Did an important family member or caregiver die during your childhood? If Yes, add 1 point___ 7. Did you experience homelessness during childhood? If Yes, add 1 point___ 8. Did your family experience significant adverse financial events during your childhood such as loss of job, financial stability or home? If Yes, add 1 point___
Total additional Points:____ Grand subtotal___________
There are additional sources of trauma which should also be considered as you investigate the likelihood that your health may have been affected by adverse experiences from the past. These are covered briefly below.
1/ Intergenerational Trauma
Emotional Trauma has also been found to be inherited epigenetically, so for example third generation children of the survivors of the holocaust have been found to have the same physiological symptoms of trauma as their grandparents. Also the prenatal period, the time we are in our mother’s womb is a critical time when trauma experienced by our mothers can be passed on to the unborn child.
Consider the below questions in relation to your overall ACE score:
- Was there significant trauma experienced by your mother during her pregnancy with you? 2. What are your parents or key caregivers’ ACE scores (based on the above questions?) 3. Were your parents or grandparents affected by war, political upheaval or other adverse events listed above during their lifetimes?
2/ Covert Trauma
Covert trauma is a more subtle form of emotional abuse from caregivers where, although there was no overt physical or sexual abuse, the chronic emotional abuse or negligence can take an even greater toll on children. The common examples of more subtle abusive traits and behaviours we are exposed to at home and work are covered in the articles below: By Niki Gratrix
How to Deal with Energy Vampires and Detox Your Relationships
How to Deal With Cultural Energy Vampires
Factors which make us more likely to be impacted by ACEs
There are certain factors that can make it more likely that an adverse childhood experience will traumatize us with lasting effects on our physical and mental well-being. These include:
- Being a Highly Sensitive Person – Some people are naturally more emotionally sensitive and aware. They are often “empaths” who can easily feel other people’s feelings and read emotional energy in a room. Their nervous system is therefore more acutely sensitive, which in turn can result in a deeper impact from ACEs.
- Having one ACE can help – having a low level of ACEs can actually help you deal better with another one – people with no ACEs at all, or very high ACE’s may have the most adverse reactions to an ACE.
- No outside support – If, during childhood there was no outside support, or the ACEs we faced were even a family “secret,” research shows the impact is worse for the child. Research shows just having one reliable adult to speak to about their experience can help a child bounce back from an ACE.
- How your store your memories of an event, your ability to reframe the meaning and even your beliefs about emotional stress itself will affect how an ACE impacts your health and well-being.
How Does Our Childhood Biography Become our Biology?
People who experienced trauma in childhood have an increased risk of 7 out of 10 of the top ten causes of death and a 20-year reduction in lifespan. How does emotional trauma and early life stress change our biology over a lifetime? It turns out that emotional trauma has an effect on three major areas: our behaviour, biochemistry, and our beliefs, all of which lead to diseases and health conditions in later life.
Behavior – People with ACEs are more likely to lack education about healthy lifestyle patterns. A study of 28,000 Californians showed people with 4 or more ACEs are less likely to be educated about health, with a 21% increased chance they will live below the poverty line, 39% more likely to be unemployed, and 27% less likely to have a college degree.
However, lack of education is not enough to explain the level of destructive health behaviours found in people with ACEs. Unresolved emotional trauma from childhood leads to addictions and others habits, like over-eating to suppress or distract from emotional pain, caused by the trauma.
The same study of 28,000 Californians showed that if a person has 4 or more ACEs, they are 10.3 times more likely to use injection drugs, 7.4 times more likely to be an alcoholic, 2.93 times more likely to be a smoker, 3.23 times more likely to binge drink, and 3.3 times more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour.
Clearly, these behaviours will lead to increased risk of diseases, like hepatitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
ACE’s also lead to other destructive health patterns, which lead to lack of healthy self-care, including workaholism, perfectionism, overachievement, over-giving, discounting personal needs, eating disorders, and much more. An example of how an ACE can sabotage healthy behaviours is demonstrated by the original ACE research by Dr Felitti at Kaiser Permanente in the obesity clinic. Felitti couldn’t understand why people would be doing great on his weight loss program, then 55% would drop out.
So, in the late ’80s, Felitti began a systematic study of 286 obese people and discovered that 50% had been sexually abused as children. That rate is more than 50% higher than the rate normally reported by women and more than triple the average rate in men.
The participants would report increasing anxiety and panic attacks when they were losing weight successfully. One woman, who had suffered sexual abuse in childhood, summed up the problem when she expressed that being overweight was her protection mechanism. It put men off from giving unwanted attention and provided a layer of protection. These findings kicked off the much larger studies, starting in the mid-1990s with the CDC.
However, behaviour is not enough to explain the increased risks of health conditions later in life in people with ACEs…
ACE’s clearly impact behaviour, but it turns out, it is not enough to explain the increased risk of health conditions in later life. For example, the original ACE study showed that if a person had 7 ACEs, but didn’t smoke or drink, had normal cholesterol, and wasn’t overweight, they were still 360% more likely than someone with 0 ACEs to get heart disease!
This was also found to be true in a study, published by BioMedical Central in 2010, studying over 17,000 adults, on the link between ACE’s, smoking, and lung cancer. Researchers stated: “Adverse childhood experiences may be associated with an increased risk of lung cancer…The increase in risk may only be partly explained by smoking suggesting other possible mechanisms by which ACEs may contribute to the occurrence of lung cancer.”
So what is going on?
ACE’s and the effect on The Biochemical Stress Mechanism
When we face either a chemical, electrical, microbial, or emotional stressor, the body responds with increased activity in the brain’s limbic system, and a message is sent to the hypothalamus via the pituitary to the adrenal glands to release stress hormones, including adrenalin and cortisol. These hormones ready the body for a flight or fight response.
However, in the case of emotional trauma in childhood, when neither a flight nor flight response is possible, these impulses cannot switch off, and two things result:
1/ The trauma becomes “frozen into the psyche and the body.”
2/ In young developing brains, a low grade intermittent stressor or shock resets the limbic-hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal system for good, resulting in a LOWERED threshold required to stimulate a response in the future.
In other words, young brains become hardwired to respond to stress more easily; less external stress is required to produce all the cascading changes in the body, which result from a stress response.
The world-leading expert in the case definition of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Dr Leonard Jason, and colleagues called this process “limbic kindling” in relation to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, in a paper called, “Kindling and Oxidative Stress as Contributors to Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.” Limbic kindling has also been used as a theoretical model for epilepsy.
The results of chronic low grade stress from childhood on our biology include:
Constant chronic low grade inflammation in the brain and body Increased free radical stress in the brain and body Sympathetic nervous system hyperactivity Parts of the immune system over-react; other parts don’t work hard enough i.e. food and chemical sensitivities, susceptibility to infections Hormonal imbalances, for example, in Chronic Fatigue, adrenal glands reduce in size and cortisol output is reduced; in major depression, it is the opposite Dysbiosis and leaky gut
Depending on the genetic propensity or the weak link, some people may develop sensitivity to chemicals, others to pain (e.g. Fibromyalgia), and others develop autoimmune diseases, cancer, heart disease, and so on.
Epigenetics and Early Life Stress
Research shows early life stress epigenetically resets the gluticocorticoid receptors, resulting in a lowered threshold required for a stress response. So, early life stress causes chronic release of stress hormones and inflammatory cytokines. Genes that shut off the stress response are silenced.
The body is flooded with inflammation at the slightest provocation, and researchers have confirmed that crucial set of breaks are off, and the body is marinading in inflammatory chemicals.
A study by Dr Joan Kaufman and colleagues also looked at epigenetic differences in children with ACEs and found gene expression changes across the entire genome, including genes implicated in cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and cancer.
Brain Inflammation and Early Life Stress
Toxic early life stress also creates low grade inflammation in the brain, something that was thought not to be possible. Studies have shown that stress triggers immune cells, called microglia to ingest neurones.
The job of the microglia is to prune unnecessary neurones; however, toxic stress causes them to go berserk, according to the research. A new understanding in brain science is that new neurones are generated in the hippocampus. When microglia cells are out of control, they prevent neurogenesis, leading to depression and inflammation.
As a result, the brain is swamped in neurochemicals, leading to chronic neuroinflammation, which is being associated as a cause of mental disorders, including anxiety, depression, bipolar, poor executive function and decision making, and even Alzheimer’s.
Beliefs – As stated above, in the example of the obesity study at Kaiser Permanente, ACE’s impact our beliefs, which can lead to destructive health behaviours, like not sticking to a weight loss program due to the belief being thin was “unsafe.”
Beliefs have an extremely powerful effect on biology, directly and indirectly, via behaviour. The most studied and tested effect on biology in science is probably the placebo effect, because every randomized controlled trial has a control group to rule out the placebo. A strong powerful belief that something will heal us…usually does, even if it was just a sugar pill.
Presently a full 1/3 of all illnesses are healed by the magic of the placebo effect.
The opposite of a placebo effect is the “nocebo” effect, where a strong, powerful belief that we should be sick or are going to be sick manifests in reality.
In a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, called “Nocebos Contribute to Host of Ills”, the author states: “In the Framingham Heart Study, women who believed they are prone to heart disease were nearly four times as likely to die as women with similar risk factors who didn’t believe.”
The Nocebo Effect and ACEs
When we are exposed to an ACE much of the time, we are unable to process and release the impact of the traumatic event at the time. It becomes stored in the unconscious mind and in the body. World-leading expert in trauma recovery, Dr Bessel Van Kolk, discusses this in his book, entitled “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.”
When traumatized, the body remembers. Time does not heal, but it conceals, and our biography, eventually, becomes our biology.
After an ACE, the traumatized part of the psyche becomes “disassociated” from us; meaning, it becomes unconscious. Often, we lose touch with the emotions related to it completely. However, there are parts of us that are angry all the time, crying all the time, fearful all the time, and so on, from the trauma.
These parts of us can have unconscious beliefs associated with them that may include feeling unworthy of health and wellbeing, feeling ashamed, and like we deserve to be punished with ill-health.
We may have a conscious belief that we can be well and recover from an illness (represented by the arrow in the diagram below), but this can be sabotaged by our unconscious belief systems linked to trauma from ACEs.
Science does not yet fully understand how conscious and unconscious beliefs can change biology, cause spontaneous disease remission and so forth, but it happens all the time.
Many clinicians and healers have observed that unconscious beliefs and “conflicts of consciousness” that are not consciously processed can become symbolically expressed via pain and illness in the body.
- The Benefits of Becoming Resilient and Resolving Emotional Trauma!
Once you start to clear your emotional trauma and align with your own balanced emotional energy source, the inevitable benefits are:
MORE energy! Feeling more expansiveness, spaciousness, and joy Resilience to energy vampires; it becomes very difficult for others to steal your energy Needing less sleep Reversal of the aging process Body aches and pains disappear Physical illnesses heal and disappear Your eating habits naturally change. You need less food, and you’ll naturally desire healthier foods The body works more efficiently and processes all kinds of foods better, so weight issues normalize Less struggling in the mind, more connection to your sensuality and feelings Synchronization of the brain and access to creative solutions Reintegration of disassociated parts and pieces of our fragmented personality, leading to more balance, contentment, and alignment
Relationships with those closest to you change, and your physical relationship with your partner will change Your body cleanses of toxins, surpassing colonics and any other biochemical cleanse You gain clarity of mind – you become smarter and clearer, and less energy is needed to process the information.
Steps to Healing Childhood Emotional Trauma
Healing emotional trauma is one of the most important aspects to address in all chronic complex illnesses. Unresolved emotional trauma leads to pain and is at the core of addictive and destructive health patterns. Unresolved trauma leads to a state of chronic stress and inflammation, which perpetuates illnesses and leads to beliefs that sabotage our ability to recover.
Step 1/ Know Thyself – Awareness and Knowledge Itself Can Heal
Calculate your ACE score and take an inventory- listing events and how they may have reset your stress response, leading to chronic low grade inflammation for life
Journaling- Writing about emotional experiences has been shown to have many therapeutic effects. Just get it out… AND then for some, shredding it or burning it to signify the release is therapeutic.
Check- have ACEs affected your behaviour, leading to addictive or destructive health patterns and inability to stick to recovery or health programs?
Personality – Explore how ACEs may have impacted your core personality, have they led to perfectionism, over-achieving, or over-giving at the cost of your own ability to relax and commit to self-care?
Read the book Childhood Disrupted by Donna Jackson Nakazawa to explore the science of ACEs and read patient stories of recovery. Reading about other people’s experiences and positive breakthroughs are very important for recovery.
Results – Have you tried everything on the physical side, but still have not gotten results/still feel stressed and inflamed? Could it be because you haven’t yet addressed ACEs’?
Beliefs – Could trauma from ACEs have unconsciously affected your beliefs? Could you be sabotaging your successful recovery through the nocebo effect? Beliefs can be changed using time line therapy and hypnosis.
Address Your Physical Body and Environment
When reversing the physical impact ACEs have had on the body over many years, we need also to address the physical impact of stress, concurrently.
Address diet and environmental factors that contribute to stress and inflammation in the body.
We also recommend intervening with targeted, natural solutions on the physical side, where needed, to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation. This may include targeted plans to heal your gut, balance gut flora, optimize organ function, balance hormones and neurotransmitters, optimize mitochondrial function, address metabolic imbalances, and support cleansing and detoxification.
3/ Lifestyle Interventions
Research has confirmed that lifestyle interventions, including the below, reverse and reduce the stress response and can support retraining the brain.
yoga practice gi gong, tai chi meditation
Movement, weight training, and exercise are also very important for general health and reducing stress and should be gradually reintroduced to your health regime.
Note: if your body is still programmed into a hyper stress response, high intensity exercise should be avoided; focus on weight training and low intensity exercise, like yoga, until your autonomic nervous system is rebalanced.
4/ Address your current relationships and cultural influences
As you heal from your emotional trauma, your emotions will lift, and you will not be resonating at the level you were before. This is where other people can become a problem.
Science has shown, if you spend time with people who have a lot of trauma, negative thoughts, and emotions, your own brain and body will become entrained to theirs, and this will hold back your own healing.
5/ Getting Professional Help
We recommend exploring different types of therapies available for treating trauma by researching online,and reading books. Just as we are all biochemically different, we are also psychologically different, so what may work for one person, may not work for another.
Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) has been used successfully by clinicians, working with a range of chronic complex illnesses. NLP is a “brief psychotherapy”, used to retrain the brain and build new neural pathways.
Time Line Therapy Techniques assist in letting go of trauma, and negative emotions from root cause… as well as releasing limiting beliefs.
Hypnotherapy has been found to be useful for resolving emotional trauma.
Acupuncture has been found to be effective for stress and trauma.
Energy Psychology includes the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which has been found to be effective for post-traumatic stress disorder and Thought Field Therapy (TFT), which has also been researched for trauma treatment.
Reiki Energy Healing has helped many who have suffered trauma or abuse and can help heal the body, mind. spirit.
Somatic Experiencing is the mind-body work of world-leading trauma expert, Dr Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. Find out more and find a practitioner at www.traumahealing.org
The Hoffman Process is a weeklong residential course for resolving unconscious programming from childhood. Find out more at https://www.hoffmaninstitute.org
6/ Dealing With Emotional Detox Reactions
If you are truly healing from emotional trauma, be prepared to deal with the emotional “detox” reactions. Just like we can have a physical healing crisis or “herxheimer” reaction, it is possible to have an “emotional” detox reaction.
7/ Understand the Scales Effect of Healing
With this added complexity of dealing with both mind and body approaches to health and well-being, it is more important than ever to understand the “Scales Effect” of healing.
Healing trauma and reaching abundant energy and health works like removing weights from one side of a set of scales. Each action, change, or approach we might take removes one fatiguing weight from one side of the scales, but the scales won’t move back into balance, until the very last weight is removed.
Thus, it can appear you are making many concurrent changes for a long period before you get to THE final one, and then the scales suddenly move, and improvement is felt all in one go. It is like reaching a “tipping point” then a leap to abundant energy occurs quite fast.
This is the reason many people can mistakenly give up too soon. They may have done many approaches concurrently, but see little improvement for a long period before a large change.
This applies to athletes, who feel like they have been training for months, perceiving no changes in their performance times, people trying to lose weight, as well as people trying to recover from a chronic illness over a long period.
Often, people give up, interfere with their plan (usually by over-controlling it), and end up going backwards on other approaches that were, in fact, supportive, so they put these weights back on the scale.
If they finally did do the one approach that would have provided the “tipping point,” it might not work, because the other approaches were abandoned too soon!
Remember: take a multifactorial concurrent approach to healing, be patient and NEVER give up!