By: Dr. Margaret Christensen
Is it possible that unresolved trauma from your past is affecting your health today?
Commonly referred to in the medical community as “ACES”, adverse childhood events are becoming more relevant in relation to your long-term health. Adverse childhood events are common, in one study, more than 50% of adults who participated had at least one ACE.1 More than 25% had at least two adverse childhood experiences.
What defines an adverse childhood event? It’s the last thing we would want our children to experience, but are often just a part of living in today’s society. There are seven categories of adverse childhood experiences, psychological, physical, or sexual abuse; violence against mother; or living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill, suicidal, or where there was divorce.
The effect this has on our health is staggering. A high level of ACEs directly correlate with an increase in the risk of developing 7 of the top 10 causes of death. One study revealed that if you had been exposed to 6 or more ACES, you were 54% more likely to die during the 10 year study. 2
The Question Becomes Why?
Psychological trauma is often devastating, but why does it also affect our physical bodies? You may or may not be familiar with the phrase “ the trauma is stored in the body.” In his groundbreaking book “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, explains the scientific advances we now use to show how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for happiness, engagement, self-control, and trust.
You are probably cognizant of the basic parts of the brain, the cerebellum, the limbic system and cerebral cortex. Within these parts of the brain there are many sub-areas. This is important to know because all three are responsible for keeping you alive and healthy. Most ACE’s are processed through the limbic system, or the fight or flight part of the brain. If the trauma is repeated, for instance, a child growing up in an alcoholic home, there is a literal mapping of the process in the brain. As pointed out in a recent article; Through a series of connections, neural networks form systems between the brain and other organs to control our body’s major functions. These include the fight-or-flight stress response system, for example, as well as the circulatory and digestive systems. 3 This becomes challenging, because when something happens to frighten us as a child, we have effectively activated the fight or flight response, but rarely does the child have the ability to run away from the identified danger.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze.
Naturally a child exposed to these repeated traumas, will have activated the fight or flight response. However, there is another condition that is important to recognize; Freeze. Freezing is fight or flight on hold, indefinitely. Freezing, similarly to fight or flight, is not a conscious decision. You cannot control it. During this fight, flight, and freeze response many physiological changes occur. The reaction begins in your amygdala, the part of your brain that perceives danger.
As you may recall, in my previous article on brain health, the amygdala sends a signal to your hypothalamus, which is located in the limbic area of the brain. It is the master regulator part of the brain. The hypothalamus regulates all hormonal systems and gaseratonical functions. It is the master regulator part of the brain. It’s responsible for keeping your body in a state of homeostasis. When there has been stressor such as exposure to a biotoxin, or ACE’s the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands.4 This signals the adrenal gland to make more cortisol because your flight or fight instinct has been triggered.
This triggers the key stress hormones, adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol to activate the nervous system. The body’s response when this instinct is triggered is simply amazing. It will cause blood vessels in the skin to constrict to lessen blood loss if injured. Simultaneously, it will shut down the digestive system in order to conserve the glucose needed for energy to run or fight. In addition, your nervous system will cause muscles in the neck, shoulders and back to constrict. Your bronchial tubes will dilate in the lungs in order to carry more oxygen to the muscles. Your heart rate will elevate to push blood flow to large muscles in order to react quickly, run fast or come out fighting. This is your body’s normal reaction to stress.
Today our triggers can be our fears; fear over the COVID-19 virus, fear over job loss, or even increased family pressure. Children also have triggers, like thinking about what will happen when they get home, or fear of being bullied on the playground. Rarely do we run away from our problems, most of us just face them day after day.
Even though the body has casades the effects that prepare us to run, or defend ourselves, we are not likely to run every time we feel frightened.
The results are all of those symptoms mentioned previously; increases in glucose, shutting down of the digestive system, increased heart rate, and high levels of stress hormones. These hormones “sit” and build up in various body tissues until (or if) it is reabsorbed or used.
Furthermore, the hippocampus is storing this memory and response that the body perceived as dangerous. Over time, this can even cause chronic low grade brain inflammation.
How Does all of this Affect My Body?
According to a 2009 study; ‘Cumulative Childhood Stress and Autoimmune Diseases in Adults’ there are some startling statistics worth noting:
- There is an 80% increase in incidents of;Lupus, Allergic Dermatitis, Atopic Eczema, Sinusitis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Asthma, Allergies, Ulcerative Colitis and Multiple chemical sensitivity if you have had 2 or more ACE’s.
- There is a 70% increase in Type I diabetes, Multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Grave’s Disease, Crohn’s Disease, Psoriasis, Celiac Disease, Rheumatoid Arthritis and chronic viral infections with 2or more ACE’s.5
We have learned so far that mental trauma, ACE’s, PTSD, or even our parents divorce can result in health problems. The trauma just wasn’t felt in the heart but actually affected our brain, our nervous system, our gut biome, and a cascade of disease has ensued. According to the ACE’s Too High website, “ Too much stress – toxic stress – occurs when that raging bear comes home from the bar every night says pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris. Then a child’s brain and body will produce an overload of stress hormones — such as cortisol and adrenaline — that harm the function and structure of the brain. This can be particularly devastating in children, whose brains are developing at a galloping pace from before they are born to age three. Toxic stress is the kind of stress that can come in response to living for months or years with a screaming alcoholic father, a severely depressed and neglectful mother or a parent who takes out life’s frustrations by whipping a belt across a child’s body.”6
All of this is extremely disruptive to your immune system. Which now leaves you additionally predisposed to all of the issues that come with inflammation in the body. 7
The Next Generation
There is a growing amount of clinical studies that ACEs may not only be affecting your health, but the health of generations to come. According to one study, “besides the impact on mental well-being and behavior in the exposed individuals, it has been suggested that psychological trauma can affect the biology of the individuals, and even have biological and behavioral consequences on the offspring of exposed individuals. Our review found an accumulating amount of evidence of an enduring effect of trauma exposure to be passed to offspring transgenerationally via the epigenetic inheritance mechanism of DNA methylation alterations and has the capacity to change the expression of genes and the metabolome.” 8
It’s not likely we will end childhood abuse, lower the divorce rate, or slow down alcoholism any time soon. Rather than being responsible for generations of illness, there is a lot we can do to heal ourselves and positively affect generations to come.
- We strongly recommend Annie Hopper’s Dynamic, Neural Brain Retaining system. This system helps combat not only the fight or flight response, but the freeze response as well. It is critical if you have been activated in fight or flight for a long period of time to activate the ventral vagal to correct these imbalances. Annie Hopper’s program activates the ventral vagal. The results are amazing! In fact, we use it ourselves.
- Practice mindful meditation. There are studies showing meditation can increase the gray matter in your brain that has been damaged by ACE’s and can actually shift your physiological stress response. 9
- Yoga. Decades of physical tension from the fight, flight, or freeze response can be stored in the body. PET scans show that yoga decreases blood flow to the amygdala, the brain’s alarm center, and increases blood flow to the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex, which help us to better respond to stressors. 10
- EFT (tapping) EFT used consistently may neutralize negatively impacting events from our past and offers us the opportunity of seeing that many of these experiences have shaped us in positive ways as well. The definition of EFT is a form of counseling intervention that draws on various theories of alternative medicine including acupuncture, neuro-linguistic programming, energy medicine, and Thought Field Therapy.
- Look into Joe Dispenza work for easy to access NLP training for your brain. His books and seminars remind us that our brains are flexible and can be rewired.
- Amygdala training.
- Healing Touch Massage Therapy. This is the first place I heard the phrase ”the trauma is stored in the body. “ Healing touch massage therapy is different in that it is a massage with all your clothes on. The practitioner’s use the meridian lines, similar to those in acupuncture, to bring health and healing.
There is so much we can do for our health that has been affected by trauma. You don’t have to suffer needlessly. We are here to help you heal.