How adverse childhood experiences or ACEs impact your current wellbeing

Often, people who have a history of trauma in childhood find themselves struggling to flourish in adulthood. Trauma affects the brain in ways that can make you more likely to experience difficulty when faced with emotionally stressful and demanding situations in your relationships, at work, and as a parent.

Throughout my life, both growing up and as an adult, I’ve faced a number of challenging life experiences, stressors, and traumas, and I understand this struggle on a deep, intrinsic level. I’ve learned, not only for myself, but through my many years reporting as a science journalist, that chronic unpredictable stress in childhood affects the architecture of the brain in ways that can impact negatively our everyday life. 

And yet it is possible though to create new, more powerful healing possibilities for inner peace and flourishing. The brain is wonderfully neuroplastic. And it’s never too late to begin the healing process. 

What are adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)?

The term adverse childhood experiences refers to chronic, unpredictable stressors that children and teenagers encounter while growing up. The original ACEs questionnaire was first created in 1995 by a team of physicians who asked thousands of patients about their experiences in childhood, and then compared those childhood experiences to patients’ adult health records.

This original ACEs survey asks about 10 categories of adversity in childhood.
These include facing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; and experiencing different types of familial dysfunction, including growing up with a parent who suffered from a mental illness; or who had an addiction; or having parents who separated or divorced; or losing a parent. Our understanding of ACEs has since expanded to include growing up facing poverty, racism, community violence, and other environmental stressors such as the pandemic and climate change.

Adverse childhood experiences turn out to have a profound effect on adult health. Over 2,000 studies have shown that individuals with ACEs scores of 2 or more are more likely to develop physical and mental health concerns in adulthood. This relationship between adversity in childhood and health issues in adulthood is dose-dependent. In other words, the more categories of ACEs you experienced as a child, the greater the likelihood of later experiencing physical and mental health disorders in adulthood.

For instance, those with an ACE score of 3 have a 60 percent increased risk of later developing an autoimmune disease, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, or Type 1 diabetes. And those with an ACE score of 4 or more are four times more likely to experience depression in adulthood.

Trauma and the brain

Adversity in childhood can change the brain in myriad ways, altering neural connectivity in the amygdala, the alarm center of the brain; the hippocampus, where you process memories and emotions; and the pre-frontal cortex, the decision-making center of your brain. Changes also occur in how well these areas communicate and network with each other in what’s known as the connectome of the brain.

How brain changes affect you

These changes can profoundly affect how you feel on a day-to-day basis, including how well you’re able to:

  • Recognize your own feelings and fears
  • Accurately perceive and interpret events happening around you
  • Voice what you need and want especially when under stress
  • Focus on what you need or require to feel safe, calm, and centered in challenging moments 
  • Use your ability to calm yourself and self-regulate when you encounter challenges in your life—for instance, an argument with your spouse, teenager, or colleague

You may find yourself either overreacting or underreacting to the world around you more than you’d like, or feel powerless about how you can exert influence over your history of trauma and adversity, or experience a sense of inertia or hopelessness about how you can manage chronic stressors now.

What can you do?

You can begin to change the legacy of the past by learning and applying neuroscience-based techniques that have a self-calming and self-regulating effect on you, and doing so in a way that is compassionate, patient, kind, and accepting of yourself. Often, those with a history of trauma have more difficulty showing loyalty to themselves, engaging in self-care, and waking up on their own side.

The invitation is to become the “general contractor” of your own well-being and utilize simple, neuroscience-based tools to help replace old neural pathways that no longer serve you with neural pathways that promote your healing and flourishing. This is a process that I call Neural Re-Narrating™.

I know how difficult this past year has been for all of us. Many people with ACE’s are finding that the early #trauma and sense of unsafety they endured growing up are being re-triggered during these fear-laden times, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, political upheaval, and feeling isolated.

To help address the stress and uncertainty we are all facing, I’ve created a new course, Your Healing Narrative: Write-to-Heal with Neural-Re-Narrating™️, to help you work through your ACE’s and become resilient in the face of current stressors. 

In this course, I teach you a new way to talk to yourself by intertwining writing prompts with mind-body exercises to signal your nervous system to calm down, reverse negative self-talk, and begin to recover from ACEs.

This program combines a series of writing prompts with mindfulness techniques and the latest neuroscience to help you engage in Neural Re-Narrating™—creating a new, more powerful and resonant healing narrative that will help you change neural pathways in ways that will help you to flourish in your current life, even in these unprecedented times of adversity. 

Learn more here.

How to care for yourself during difficult times

Many people with #ACE’s (Adverse Childhood Experiences) are finding that the early #trauma and sense of unsafety they endured growing up are being re-triggered during these fear-laden times, amidst the #Covid #pandemic, political upheaval, and feeling isolated. Stress and uncertainty can trigger old, sticky feelings of fear, anxiety, or loss from long ago and bring up new, painful negative thoughts and physical symptoms. This can be true even when we’ve worked really hard to resolve our trauma. It can feel like we’re backsliding. I know that this is certainly the case for me, and I know, from so many of you who’ve reached out to me, that this is also the case for many of you.

So here’s a gentle reminder. It’s so important to stop, pause, and take care of yourself during these difficult times, as often as you need to. It is OKAY to take a break whenever you need to, even if it’s every twenty minutes. Go for a walk. Order yourself some flowers and put them in a favorite vase. Do five minutes of deep breathing. Call a friend. Reach out to a trusted mental health care practitioner. Do all of the above.

Whenever I am triggered in my personal life and old fears emerge (which is often these days), I return to the many different tools in my toolbox. One is a series of basic breath techniques that help me move through old sticky feelings and dissipate the fear, tension, and uncertainty I feel. 

To inspire you, here’s a quick review of the science on how breathing techniques can help you to calm your nervous system by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (what I like to call the Purr Now System), or PNS, which helps to boost the relaxation response.

Oxygenating the Brain

Your nervous system is comprised of an intricate network that carries messages from the brain to the body—telling you whether you are safe or not safe—in order to help you regulate your bodily functions and prepare for any possible situations, interactions, or challenges in your environment for which you may need to prepare. This network is a two-way superhighway of messaging. 

Messages rise from the body to tell the brain whether you’re safe, and the brain sends messages to the body about whether you need to prepare for any potential threat. This communication is constant, and one of the ways in which the body and brain communicate is through the breath: You take in 25,000 breaths a day.

Breathing Too Fast

If your breath is shallow, or coming quickly, as it is when you are stressed, the brain gets the message to act and respond as if you’re in physical danger. Respiratory messages take top priority when it comes to getting the brain’s attention.

Breathing and Emotions

Your emotional state of mind affects the rate, depth, and pattern of your breath and vice versa. Manipulating the breath in ways that match up with a particular emotion—such as fear, rage, joy, or contentment—can account for as much as 40 percent of how you feel emotionally. Think of screaming out loud in pain, holding your breath in fear, laughing with gladness, sighing with relief, or breathing in deeply as you drink in a beautiful scene in nature.

Breathing Technique

According to decades of research, the most beneficial breath sequence for stimulating the positive healing power of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), calming your brain and body, and managing anxiety is breathing in for 5½ seconds and breathing out for 5½ seconds. It can also help to make your exhale last longer than your inhale.

Filling your diaphragm—by pushing your belly out like a Buddha’s belly—also helps push blood into the heart and slow your heart rate. Slowing your heart rate helps to pump blood throughout the body, thus oxygenating the body and brain. This helps stimulate the PNS and the relaxation response.

Breathing vs. Medication

Although many medicines can temporarily dampen the stress response and the sympathetic nervous system (or what I call the Stress Now System), there are no medications you can take to boost the rest and relaxation response, or the parasympathetic nervous system. Slow, gentle breathing can stimulate the relaxation response rapidly and effectively—in as little as five minutes.

The oldest tool we have is the most powerful—the breath—and it has zero side effects.

Stop the negative self-talk and soothe your nervous system

The events and stressors of this past year have prompted me to create a new course, Your Healing Narrative: Write-to-Heal with Neural-Re-Narrating™️, to help you work through your #ACE’s and become resilient in the face of current stressors. 

In this course, I teach you a new way to talk to yourself by intertwining writing prompts with mind-body exercises to signal your nervous system to calm down, reverse negative self-talk, and begin to recover from #ACEs.

This program combines a series of writing prompts with mindfulness techniques and the latest neuroscience to help you engage in what I call Neural Re-Narrating™—creating a new, more powerful and resonant healing narrative that will help you change neural pathways in the brain in ways that will help you to flourish in your current life, even in these times of adversity. 

Learn more here.

Paperback Release of The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell that Changed the Course of Medicine

When I sat down in my attic to write THE ANGEL AND THE ASSASSIN: The Tiny Brain Cell that Changed the Course of Medicine, I never imagined that it would be so needed in our world! 2020 has been chock-full of adversity, uncertainty and distress on so many levels: the worst pandemic in a hundred years, millions facing economic uncertainty, global climate change, and mounting political discord. 

The past decade has been a golden era in brain research, one in which scientists have offered extraordinary hope for today’s mental health crisis by rewriting our basic understanding of how disorders of the human brain develop, and how we might help prevent or ameliorate them. And they all come down to one tiny, elusive cell, called microglia (remember that name!), which turn out to be game-changers for mental health.

The Angel and the Assassin offers a deep dive into recent groundbreaking discoveries about the brain and how microglia link our mental and physical health. When we are facing external stressors, including viral infections or chronic emotional stressors, these cells can wreak havoc in our brain, sparking inflammation and a wide range of problems. However, under the right circumstances, microglia can be coaxed into becoming healers, able to repair the brain in ways that help alleviate symptoms ranging from memory loss and anxiety to depression.

This book offers more hope and promise for human healing than any other science I’ve ever reported on. Today, as we face a pandemic and unprecedented political unrest, we need, more than ever, to understand what helps and what harms brain health, and have new pathways for healing.

I am excited to announce that The Angel and the Assassin will be available everywhere in paperback format January 19, 2021. If you haven’t already, grab your copy here!

Click here to read the prologue: When the Body Attacks the Brain.


To learn more about the brain and the long-overlooked cells called microglia, check out these excellent press releases and podcasts about The Angel and the Assassin:

Your Healing Narrative: Write-to-Heal With Neural Re-Narrating™️

Happy 2021!

2020 was a year unlike any other. But it also brought home for many of us what matters most, including the importance of nurturing and harnessing the power of our nervous system and brain toward equanimity so that we can flourish even in the face of adversity.

Your Healing Narrative: Write-to-Heal With Neural Re-Narrating™ is my 2021 offering for individuals, parents, teachers, social workers, therapists, and health care professionals, to help ease a little bit of the anxiety, suffering, and trauma we are all experiencing.

Over my three decades as a science journalist, in the course of writing seven books and exploring the intersection of neuroscience, emotion, and the mind-body connection, I’ve sat with many individuals who’ve suffered from adversity and interviewed hundreds of leading neuroscientists. Your Healing Narrative: Write-to-Heal With Neural Re-Narrating™ is a compilation and distillation of all that I’ve learned – a synthesis of all the best strategies I know for flourishing in the face of adversity. In this program, which combines writing-to-heal techniques with science-based trauma-healing interventions and mindfulness approaches, I’ve set out to help you learn how to override your brain’s old, habitual reactions and create new, healthier responses that reset the brain and nervous system for peace and possibility.

In the past, I’ve shared how I faced a number of challenging life experiences and traumas throughout my life, both growing up, and as an adult.

I know what it’s like to feel as if you’re swimming hard against an invisible tide of challenges and stressors – whether it’s trauma from the past, stressors in your current life, chronic health conditions, or concerns over someone you dearly love. And I know how hard it is to utilize healing strategies when facing uncertainty and adversity. When the world around me, or the lives of those I love, spin into chaos, these are the moments I’ve become most caught up in rumination and self-criticism, and resisted taking care of my own well-being. 

All too often, especially if we are women or serve in the healing professions, we may be so busy caring for others that we don’t turn our attention to our own inner well-being with the self-compassion we deserve.

This year has been chock-full of adversity, uncertainty and distress on so many levels: the worst pandemic in a hundred years, millions facing economic uncertainty, global climate change, and mounting political discord. Over time, facing unpredictable, chronic stressors can deliver us into a low-grade state of fight, flight, freeze, sabotaging our immune system and our nervous system. Perhaps you’ve noticed changes in your mood, mindset, or health. Or, perhaps you’re not aware of the tension you may be holding onto as you keep on coping, and caregiving for those who need you. Either way, over time, chronic stress can begin to take a physical and emotional toll your long-term health. 

Knowledge in and of itself is not enough to change old, neural patterns. When we try to change our thought patterns and reactions on our own, we automatically overlay old, ingrained thought patterns onto newly learned approaches. 

That’s why I’ve created Your Healing Narrative: Write-to-Heal With Neural Re-Narrating™ in which I carefully guide you step-by-step through over 100 lessons, activities, and strategies. Throughout this course you’ll go on a journey, using the process of writing-to-heal to recognize old, painful thought patterns; observe how your history of adversity may be affecting your health, relationships, and well-being; and begin rewriting your inner story to create a new, more powerful, resonant, and purposeful healing narrative that will help you to flourish in your life, even in the face of adversity. 

My hope is that through this course, you’ll come away with simple but powerful tools to create a deep and lasting inner sense of resiliency. By doing this transformative work, you will not only help yourself through difficulties from the past, as well as in your present life, you’ll also begin to extend that inner sense of safety, and the resources you learn, to help those around you thrive.

In truth, I wish I had been able to take this program myself decades ago, earlier in my own healing journey, both as a parent, and as an individual with chronic health conditions. And so, I created it for all of you, to help you thrive through these unprecedented times. 

I’ve created two versions of this program: one for Healing Professionals and one for Individuals. You can learn more here.

I truly believe that Neural Re-Narrating™ holds the key to creating more powerful healing possibilities for inner peace and flourishing, even in these times of adversity! 

You can learn more about the different program offerings here! Be sure to use the code CALM2021 to get $25 off the introductory price!

Big Women, Little Women, Small Oscars

The Oscars are this Sunday, and as war movies and films about repressed male feelings take center stage, I’ve been thinking about why Greta Gerwig’s Little Women had me wiping away tears during the last 30 minutes of the film – something that also happened to me while watching another Gerwig film, Lady Bird.

Continue reading Big Women, Little Women, Small Oscars

The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell that Changed the Course of Medicine – now available everywhere!

Donna Jackson Nakazawa

Dear Readers, Friends, All, 

I’m thrilled to announce that THE ANGEL AND THE ASSASSIN: The Tiny Brain Cell that Changed the Course of Medicine in now on bookshelves and available everywhere!

When I first told you, my readers, that I was setting out to tell the story of these tiny brain cells, microglia (remember that name!) that connect our physical and mental health, and why these cells wield so much power over how we feel right here, right now — changing everything we thought we knew about depression, anxiety, chronic pain, mood disorders, and cognitive health, I was moved by your response.

Continue reading The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell that Changed the Course of Medicine – now available everywhere!

The Angel and The Assassin: Book Launch and Tour Info

Dear all,

The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell that Changed the Course of Medicine will be out in just 6 days!

If you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll consider pre-ordering from your local bookstore or seller of your choice!

You can also check out this review in Kirkus, or read the prologue here!

And, I have a piece about the book coming out in Wired magazine on January 21, as well as OpEds in The Boston Globe and STAT, so keep your eyes peeled!

I’m heading out on tour starting on the 21st, and would love to see your lovely faces! All the details are on my website, but here’s a quick look at where I’ll be over the next month. Let me know if you’re coming on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram! Invite your friends! Come and ask me questions! 

The Ivy Bookstore – 7:00 pm
In conversation with Sheilah Kast, host of On the Record, WYPR, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, with book signing and wine tasting to follow, courtesy of Peter Wood of The French Paradox (Voted Best Wine Store in Baltimore)!

Harvard Science Center – 6:00 pm
Harvard Division of Science, Harvard Cabot Science Library Series, Harvard Bookstore
In conversation with
Carey Goldberg, host of CommonHealth, WBUR, Boston’s NPR Station, and the brilliant Beth Stevens Ph.D., MacArthur Fellow and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator 

Belmont Books – 7:00 pm
In conversation with the amazing Bina Venkataraman, editorial page editor, The Boston Globe, and author of the amazing book The Optimist’s Telescope

Word Books – 7:00 pm
A Sob Sisters event organized by the sensational trio of New York Times bestselling writers, Susannah Cahalan, Ada Calhoun, Karen Abbott
In conversation with Kate Winkler Dawson, author of the wonderful book, American Sherlock
Sign up here

Eastport Library – 6:30 pm
Community Foundation of Anne Arundel County and Old Fox Books
In conversation with the brilliant
Christina Bethell, Ph.D., professor of public health at Bloomberg School of Health at Johns Hopkins

Midtown Scholar – 5:00 pm
In conversation with Brett Sholtis, reporter for Transforming Health, WITF, Harrisburg’s NPR News Station

Those are the dates! I so hope to see you there!

Thank you all for your help and support- please feel free to post and share this widely!

– Donna

The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell that Changed the Course of Medicine

Available January 21st, 2020!

Hi all!

My new book, THE ANGEL AND THE ASSASSIN: THE TINY BRAIN CELL THAT CHANGED THE COURSE OF MEDICINE will be out in just 2 months, on January 21st, 2020! After two years of reporting, researching, writing, factchecking, I can’t wait to share it with you!

If you haven’t heard me yammering about it on social media (Instagram and Twitter and Facebook, please follow me?) here’s some of the news that I’ve been sharing!

I’m grateful for early praise pouring in from leading authors, scientists, physicians, and experts in their fields, people I think of, really, as Heroes of Humanity!

Susannah CahalanNew York Times bestselling author of Brain on Fire calls The Angel and the Assassin “A fascinating deep dive into the unsung heroes (and villains) inside our skulls….Donna Jackson Nakazawa has a journalist’s eye for story, a scholar’s understanding of the research, and patient’s appreciation for high the stakes truly are.”

Dan Siegel, MD, Psychiatrist and Clinical Professor, UCLA School of Medicine, and author of Mindsight says, “An inspiring account…will provide a game-changing view of health for generations of researchers, clinicians and citizens for years to come. Bravo!”

Shannon Brownlee, Senior Vice President of the Lown Institute, author of Overtreated writes, “Few non-fiction writers can tell the tale of scientific inquiry so vividly the reader can feel the excitement of discovery with every word. Donna Jackson Nakazawa is one of those writers, and this book tells the tale of one of the most intriguing and groundbreaking discoveries in all of medicine.”

Thomas Insel, MD, Former Director, National Institute of Mental Health 2002 – 2015, writes that The Angel and the Assassin is “A deft, scientific story about the ‘Cinderella’ cell of the brain, microglia . . . Jackson Nakazawa explains the possible translation of the science into solutions for brain disorders, health and disease.”

Christina Bethell, PhD, Professor of Child Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says,  “A captivating, page-turning story of the scientific discoveries that overturn centuries of medical domga. The Angel and the Assassin offers extraordinary promise and heralds new hope … paradigm shifting reading for us all.”

Mark Hyman, MD, Director, The Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, New York Times bestselling author of Food, says, “[This] is the rarest of books, a combination of page-turning discovery and remarkably readable scientific journalism. A book to both savor and share.” 

Susannah Tye, PhD, Director, Translational Neuroscience Laboratory, Mayo Clinic calls The Angel and the Assassin “An impressive, inspiring, timely call to arms.”

Terry Wahls, MD, author The Wahls Protocol, says, “The Angel and the Assassin is riveting, engaging. Nakazawa’s work is visionary.” 

Peggy OrensteinNew York Times bestselling author of Girls & Sex, writes, “The Angel and the Assassin is one of those astonishing medical yarns that you almost can’t believe: how the power of this tiny cell was so long overlooked, how integral it has become to our understanding of neuroscience and immunology, the way it has transformed the most basic ideas of who we are as humans. It is especially essential reading for women, who face depression, Alzheimer’s and autoimmune disorders at higher rates than men.”

Andrew Weil, MDNew York Times bestselling author of Healthy Aging says, “Donna Jackson Nakazawa puts forth a revolutionary new way of thinking about the brain’s immune system and its interactions with [the] rest of the body….Much of the information here was new to me, and has made me more optimistic about the future of medicine.”

If you ARE maybe thinking of buying a copy of THE ANGEL AND THE ASSASSIN one day, would you consider pre-ordering? One of the most helpful things you can do to support an author’s work is to preorder the book from your independent, community bookseller. Here’s why! (Get ready for an INSIDE PEEK at publishing!) When you preorder from your local bookstore, the bookstore owner takes note: OH! HEY! PEOPLE ARE INTERESTED IN THIS BOOK! That makes them more likely to order copies, stock the book, place it in the bookstore window, write about it in their newsletter, and suggest it to other readers! (Oh, and to invite said author to do a book signing near you :). ALL THIS LEADS TO ANOTHER UNBELIEVABLY HELPFUL THING!! INDEPENDENT BOOKSTORES report pre-sales and sales to The New York Times Bestseller list (and other lists!). Lists RELY on small, privately owned bookshops sales reports for rankings! HOW CAN YOU DO THIS? IT TAKES ONE MINUTE AND FOUR CLICKS. This link takes you to the page for THE ANGEL AND THE ASSASSIN where you’ll find options for pre-ordering. Click on INDIEBOUND. Type in your zipcode (on the right where it says “Buy at a local store.”) ORDER! (Maybe that is only three clicks? Even better.) If you want to buy on Amazon or Barnes & Noble that’s okay too! You’ll see those options at the same link. BOTTOM LINE: PRE-ordering an upcoming book from your LOCAL FRIENDLY BOOKSELLER IS THE ULTIMATE GIFT YOU CAN GIVE AN AUTHOR IF YOU VALUE READING THEIR BOOKS.

As we get closer to pub date I’ll be sharing my speaking schedule, where I’ll be signing books, and other big news! Stay tuned and THANK YOU for all of your help and support! I’m lucky to have the best readers on the planet! (Oh, and please share this widely!)