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.