The Trauma Gateway

The Trauma Gateway

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I recently came across an inspirational TED talk on How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime, by Doctor Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician in southeastern San Francisco. She began to wonder if there were wider reasons for the trends she saw in children developing illnesses and conditions.

She said, ‘A lot of kids were being referred to me for ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but … the kids I was seeing had experienced such severe trauma that it felt like something else was going on.’

Burke Harris read the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which made great sense. Conducted in the mid-’90s, this research analysed over 17,000 adult patients for “adverse childhood experiences” like neglect, abuse, exposure to domestic violence, and parents’ divorce, substance dependence, mental illness or imprisonment. They discovered that exposure to such childhood trauma vastly increased the risk of people developing life-threatening conditions like heart disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hepatitis, autoimmune diseases, depression and suicidality.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are extremely common. In the original study, 67% of the population had at least one ACE, and 12.6% (one in eight) had four or more. The higher the ACE score, the worse the person’s health outcomes. The original ACEs study was conducted with a population that was 70% college-educated, while the majority of Nadine Burke Harris’s young patients  were from deprived areas. ACEs are endemic in our society. So many people in all walks of life have grown up with a family member who suffered from some kind of mental ill-health, or had a parent who drank too much, or who physically or emotionally abused their spouse or children. It is an issue that touches many of us – with devastating implications. People exposed to very high doses of trauma have triple the risk of developing heart disease and lung cancer and can expect a 20-year reduction in life expectancy.

Even those who don’t engage in high-risk behaviour are still more likely to develop diseases like heart disease or cancer – because of our stress response system. In stressful or threatening situations, the body’s “flight or fight” response releases stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, causing chemical reactions. With repeated trauma, Burke Harris points out, this moves from being life-saving to health-damaging.  High stress affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and even how our DNA is interpreted.  Children are especially sensitive to repeated stress, because their brains, nervous systems and organs are still developing.

The scientific evidence is clear: early life adversity dramatically affects health. But now, we are starting to understand how to prevent this ‘natural’ progression to early death. Burke Harris’s team uses a multidisciplinary approach to reduce the effects of adversity and treat symptoms, including therapy and holistic care. They also educate parents on the negative impact of ACEs and toxic stress.

Dr. Robert Block, the former President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said: “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” In actual fact, I think many of the major problems in the world are caused by damage from early life experience and childhood trauma.

The research into the causes and effects of trauma is relatively narrow in the studies mentioned above. I think trauma is much more prevalent. Its causes are wider than the family and it results in more societal problems than just health ones.

For example, in my explorations in healing my own childhood trauma, much of it came from my experience of the education system.

In my country, we still impose upon eleven year old children an examination that affects the rest of their lives. It measures a narrow definition of intellect, and is used to label and ‘stream’ kids in a certain direction. This brief snapshot of their ability, captured within a couple of hours, puts a great deal of pressure on children to perform and requires schools to focus on preparations for it a year or more ahead. The same is true in other countries in which children are tested at various ages. Even if a child is not pressurised by parents, governments, teachers and schools directly place stress on pupils. The focus of education is on extremely hard work to meet school targets and improve examination results. But we are yet to understand the traumatic impact of this pressure on long term health, and the resultant issues it creates for individuals and society as a whole.  Exposing kids to the constant trauma of testing creates long-term health consequences that are not yet fully understood.

It isn’t just health and education. Our entire societal system, based on competition and extrinsic motivation – with its focus on money, qualifications, career, material things – is exposing us all to stress. I  turn, children pick up on parents’ emotions and stresses, experiencing this as trauma themselves. The cycle continues.

Looking at the stories of many people in power and many of the super-wealthy, you are likely to find a story of childhood trauma. More often than not, that hunger for power and status comes from a lack somewhere else in their lives.

I also think of the impact of the justice system and the trauma it creates. In my country, if you get in trouble with the law at all, you are named and shamed in the national newspaper. The legal, judicial and court system is traumatic whether for juror, witness, victim or perpetrator, since the system puts people under tremendous pressure, in a ritualised public arena.

So many of our systems are set up to provoke people, to evoke stress, trauma and humiliation, not only in individuals, but for their families and the wider community.

The positive news is that our understanding of how to prevent and how to heal trauma has radically changed. But it is not merely the responsibility of parents to protect their own children from the lifelong effects of toxic stress and trauma. It is not even the health system’s responsibility to cure the ailments created by the past. The solution needs to be wider still – to include society as a whole and the wider systems that govern it.

Childhood trauma is both healable and preventable, and for me, this is the gateway to changing many of the major problems we have in the world.

Address childhood trauma, and we will heal the world.

To this end, Thrive2020 is a world-changing conference we are holding in Guernsey on October 17th that looks to tackle this huge gateway problem.

  • Will you join us at the conference?
  • How can you prevent toxic stress? Or cure its effects?
  • What action will you take now?
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  1. Right on! Marc Winn. ACEsTooHigh.com, which I (officially) launched in 2012, is a niche news site that takes a solution-oriented approach to reporting on how organizations, agencies and individuals are implementing trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on ACEs research (writ large). We’ve done stories about the early adopters — pediatricians (including Nadine), judges, educators, police, social workers, etc. — who are figuring out how to actually solve our most intractable problems, and have the data and stories to prove it.
    ACEsConnection.com, a community-of-practice social network, has nearly 7,000 people (about 10% outside the U.S.) who are implementing or thinking about implementing trauma-informed and resilience-building practices in their work, families and communities, and are sharing best practices with each other.
    In 2016, I will be spending more time talking with, nudging, and cajoling people in my own profession to move from problem-oriented to solution-oriented, ACEs-informed reporting.

  2. Karen Howard says

    Hi. I wzs having some comunication problems w/ one of my adult children & wrote to the other one about it& we are all dmaged from Childhood Traumas & was talking to her about some stuff concerning it & she sent me this & some other utube videos on different subjects. I am arare of some of this, & the part about the courts& school testing I wasn’t. Are there any petitions I can sign to help chznge the laws on this? I am very interested to learn more.

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