Tag Archives: Adverse Childhood Experiences

Self Help: More Than Just a Good Book (Shenandoah Chefalo)

Positive changes in how we think and how we manage difficult situations can develop even without our full awareness; they can even surprise us, but in a good way. There’s a message here for us and for our children. Author and foster youth advocate, Shenandoah Chefalo, shares her thoughts on self help.
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Self Help: More Than Just a Good Book, Shenandoah ChefaloI have written before about how I was a self-help book addict. I read every book I could find, re-reading several of them and even going as far as getting them on audiobook so I could re-listen to them hundreds of times.

I did this because I absolutely believed in their base principles, and, frankly, I needed a constant reminder. I would listen — and would feel good for 10 to 30 minutes afterwards. But, then life would happen; I would forget everything I learned and I would be right back to old habits until the next time I was in my car. This went on for years.

I often felt more depressed the more I listened or tried to read the books. Why wasn’t I able to just do this? How come I wasn’t good enough to implement these ideas? They weren’t helping me, and I didn’t know what else to do. I abandoned the ideas and assumed I was doomed for a life of hardship.

A Different View

Then, I decided to write Garbage Bag Suitcase, and everything changed. I didn’t know how this book would completely flip my world upside down, but while researching for that book, I stumbled on a piece of research (the Adverse Childhood Experience Study) that changed the way I understood my relationship with my mind and body. That one study lead me to more reading, but not in the self-help section, this time in the science section. Specifically, these were topics on brain function.

Before I read this study, things happened to me and I felt as though I was an unlucky participant in the happenings. I couldn’t understand how I could “change my luck.” After I read the study, I started to see my life’s journey in a completely different way. What if everything I considered “bad” that had happened to me, happened for a completely positive reason? It was a stretch, and when I told a friend she basically laughed at me.

But I couldn’t escape the thought. Was it possible that my own neglectful childhood had caused me to see only bad things? Slowly, I started to see tiny shifts within my own life. I was rewiring what I considered to be my “trauma brain” but it was tedious.

The “Test”

Then, recently, several disappointing things happened in a row (minor things, really):

1: My book wasn’t chosen for an independent award I was hoping to receive.

2: I submitted the book for a writing/screenwriting competition, and it wasn’t recognized there either; and

3: I also received a negative review about the book that felt very personal.

 

All of these things happened within a few days of each other.

Garbage Bag Suitcase, Shenandoah ChefaloIn the past, any one of these things would have sent me into a deep depression for a day or longer. The trifecta would have made me nearly despondent.

But it didn’t. After each event, after the tinge of disappointment, I remember thinking to myself, “That’s OK, something better must be coming.” I didn’t intend for that to be my response, it just was.

Those old feelings of depression, sadness, emptiness, feelings that I wasn’t good enough, seemed to have just disappeared. This is what I understood from all the trauma research I had done. I had actually changed the pathways in my mind to a new way of thinking and feeling.

A New Way of Thinking

It was possible! And now that I have this new way of thinking, I find the information I learned in my previous self-help addiction is easier to implement then before. It wasn’t bad information; it just wasn’t enough information for a person who was still functioning in trauma brain.

The self-help industry is a multi-billion dollar industry. When I was in trauma brain, I talked about “how it was” because none of it worked. Now that I have begun healing my trauma brain (I have a few more new pathways to develop), I understand that the information is valuable, but usually there is a lot of hard work to do before implementing the principles in any of the books.

Some of us have never known true happiness, so trying to “tune in” to that emotion and bring more of it to us is impossible until we find, create and reinforce new pathways in our brain. We can feel helpless and paralyzed. What we really need is the support of those around us to offer guidance on our journey of self-healing!

In the end, my self-help addiction helped me heal — maybe not in the way I initially thought. I hear lots of people talk about the Law of Attraction. They are almost afraid to have a negative thought for fear it will bring more negativity. What I learned is, to begin with, you have to heal yourself from your negative thoughts. That takes patience, love and grace for yourself above anything else.

If you are going to go down the path of healing your trauma brain, you will bump into lots of negative emotions that you have to learn to overcome. It isn’t easy.

Practice, patience, and remember that we all deserve absolute joy.

 

Shenandoah Chefalo is a former foster youth, and advocate. She is the author of the memoir, Garbage Bag Suitcase, and co-founder of Good Harbor Institute, an organization focused on translating evidence based research on trauma into skills that can be used immediately by individuals and organizations. You can learn more about her and her work at www.garbagebagsuitcase.com or www.goodharborinst.com

 

7 Ways Childhood Adversity Can Change Your Brain (Donna Jackson Nakazawa)

According to science journalist and author, Donna Jackson Nakazawa, early emotional trauma changes who we are, but we can do something about it. This article, reprinted here with the author’s permission, first appeared in a Psychology Today blog of August 7, 2015.
(Donna wrote this as Part I; Part II offers science-based methods for reversing the changes related to ACEs. Part II can be accessed through a link at the bottom of this article.)

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7 Ways Childhood Adversity Can Change Your Brain, Donna Jackson NakazawaIf you’ve ever wondered why you’ve been struggling a little too hard for a little too long with chronic emotional and physical health conditions that just won’t abate, feeling as if you’ve been swimming against some invisible current that never ceases, a new field of scientific research may offer hope, answers, and healing insights.

In 1995, physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda launched a large-scale epidemiological study that probed the child and adolescent histories of 17,000 subjects, comparing their childhood experiences to their later adult health records. The results were shocking: Nearly two-thirds of individuals had encountered one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—a term Felitti and Anda coined to encompass the chronic, unpredictable, and stress-inducing events that some children face. These included growing up with a depressed or alcoholic parent; losing a parent to divorce or other causes; or enduring chronic humiliation, emotional neglect, or sexual or physical abuse. These forms of emotional trauma went beyond the typical, everyday challenges of growing up. (For stories of those who faced childhood adversity, see these videos on Laura and John, two patients featured in my newest book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal.)

The number of Adverse Childhood Experiences an individual had had predicted the amount of medical care she’d require as an adult with surprising accuracy:

• Individuals who had faced 4 or more categories of ACEs were twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer as individuals who hadn’t experienced childhood adversity.
• For each ACE Score a woman had, her risk of being hospitalized with an autoimmune disease rose by 20 percent.
• Someone with an ACE Score of 4 was 460 percent more likely to suffer from depression than someone with an ACE Score of 0.
• An ACE Score greater than or equal to 6 shortened an individual’s lifespan by almost 20 years.

Childhood Disrupted, Donna Jackson NakazawaThe ACE Study tells us that experiencing chronic, unpredictable toxic stress in childhood predisposes us to a constellation of chronic conditions in adulthood. But why? Today, in labs across the country, neuroscientists are peering into the once inscrutable brain-body connection, and breaking down, on a biochemical level, exactly how the stress we face when we’re young catches up with us when we’re adults, altering our bodies, our cells, and even our DNA. What they’ve found may surprise you.

Some of these scientific findings can be a little overwhelming to contemplate. They compel us to take a new look at how emotional and physical pain are intertwined. (For more on why I wrote about how ACEs can change the way we see illness and how we do medicine, see this video.)

[In Part I of this article, we’ll talk about the science of early adversity and how it changes us. In Part II, we’ll talk about all the science-based ways in which we can reverse these changes, and get back to who it is we hope to be, so stay tuned for the good news.]

1. Epigenetic Shifts

When we’re thrust over and over again into stress-inducing situations during childhood or adolescence, our physiological stress response shifts into overdrive, and we lose the ability to respond appropriately and effectively to future stressors—10, 20, even 30 years later. This happens due to a process known as gene methylation, in which small chemical markers, or methyl groups, adhere to the genes involved in regulating the stress response, and prevent these genes from doing their jobs. As the function of these genes is altered, the stress response becomes re-set on “high” for life, promoting inflammation and disease.
This can make us more likely to over-react to the everyday stressors we meet in our adult life—an unexpected bill, a disagreement with a spouse, or a car that swerves in front of us on the highway, creating more inflammation. This, in turn, predisposes us to a host of chronic conditions, including autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer, and depression.

Indeed, Yale researchers recently found that children who’d faced chronic, toxic stress showed changes “across the entire genome,” in genes that not only oversee the stress response, but also in genes implicated in a wide array of adult diseases. This new research on early emotional trauma, epigenetic changes, and adult physical disease breaks down longstanding delineations between what the medical community has long seen as “physical” disease versus what is “mental” or “emotional.”

2. Size and Shape of the Brain

Scientists have found that when the developing brain is chronically stressed, it releases a hormone that actually shrinks the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible of processing emotion and memory and managing stress. Recent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies suggest that the higher an individual’s ACE Score, the less gray matter he or she has in other key areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, an area related to decision-making and self-regulatory skills, and the amygdala, or fear-processing center. Kids whose brains have been changed by their Adverse Childhood Experiences are more likely to become adults who find themselves over-reacting to even minor stressors.

3. Neural Pruning

Children have an overabundance of neurons and synaptic connections; their brains are hard at work, trying to make sense of the world around them. Until recently, scientists believed that the pruning of excess neurons and connections was achieved solely in a “use-it-or-lose-it” manner, but a surprising new player in brain development has appeared on the scene: non-neuronal brain cells—known as microglia, which make up one-tenth of all the cells in the brain, and are actually part of the immune system—participate in the pruning process. These cells prune synapses like a gardener prunes a hedge. They also engulf and digest entire cells and cellular debris, thereby playing an essential housekeeping role.

But when a child faces unpredictable, chronic stress of Adverse Childhood Experiences, microglial cells “can get really worked up and crank out neurochemicals that lead to neuroinflammation,” says Margaret McCarthy, PhD, whose research team at the University of Maryland Medical Center studies the developing brain. “This below-the-radar state of chronic neuroinflammation can lead to changes that reset the tone of the brain for life.”

That means that kids who come into adolescence with a history of adversity and lack the presence of a consistent, loving adult to help them through it may become more likely to develop mood disorders or have poor executive functioning and decision-making skills.

4. Telomeres

Early trauma can make children seem “older,” emotionally speaking, than their peers. Now, scientists at Duke University; the University of California, San Francisco; and Brown University have discovered that Adverse Childhood Experiences may prematurely age children on a cellular level as well. Adults who’d faced early trauma show greater erosion in what are known as telomeres—the protective caps that sit on the ends of DNA strands, like the caps on shoelaces, to keep the genome healthy and intact. As our telomeres erode, we’re more likely to develop disease, and our cells age faster.

5. Default Mode Network

Inside each of our brains, a network of neurocircuitry, known as the “default mode network,” quietly hums along, like a car idling in a driveway. It unites areas of the brain associated with memory and thought integration, and it’s always on stand-by, ready to help us to figure out what we need to do next. “The dense connectivity in these areas of the brain help us to determine what’s relevant or not relevant, so that we can be ready for whatever our environment is going to ask of us,” explains Ruth Lanius, neuroscientist, professor of psychiatry, and director of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Research Unit at the University of Ontario.

But when children face early adversity and are routinely thrust into a state of fight-or-flight, the default mode network starts to go offline; it’s no longer helping them to figure out what’s relevant, or what they need to do next. According to Lanius, kids who’ve faced early trauma have less connectivity in the default mode network—even decades after the trauma occurred. Their brains don’t seem to enter that healthy idling position—and so they may have trouble reacting appropriately to the world around them.

6. Brain-Body Pathway

Until recently, it’s been scientifically accepted that the brain is “immune-privileged,” or cut off from the body’s immune system. But that turns out not to be the case, according to a groundbreaking study conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. Researchers found that an elusive pathway travels between the brain and the immune system via lymphatic vessels. The lymphatic system, which is part of the circulatory system, carries lymph—a liquid that helps to eliminate toxins, and moves immune cells from one part of the body to another. Now we know that the immune system pathway includes the brain.

The results of this study have profound implications for ACE research. For a child who’s experienced adversity, the relationship between mental and physical suffering is strong: the inflammatory chemicals that flood a child’s body when she’s chronically stressed aren’t confined to the body alone; they’re shuttled from head to toe.

7. Brain Connectivity

Ryan Herringa, neuropsychiatrist and assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, found that children and teens who’d experienced chronic childhood adversity showed weaker neural connections between the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. Girls also displayed weaker connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The prefrontal-cortex-amygdala relationship plays an essential role in determining how emotionally reactive we’re likely to be to the things that happen to us in our day-to-day life, and how likely we are to perceive these events as stressful or dangerous.

According to Herringa:

If you are a girl who has had Adverse Childhood Experiences and these brain connections are weaker, you might expect that in just about any stressful situation you encounter as life goes on, you may experience a greater level of fear and anxiety.

Girls with these weakened neural connections, Herringa found, stood at a higher risk for developing anxiety and depression by the time they reached late adolescence. This may, in part, explain why females are nearly twice as likely as males to suffer from later mood disorders.

This science can be overwhelming, especially to those of us who are parents. So, what can you do if you or a child you love has been affected by early adversity? The good news is that, just as our scientific understanding of how adversity affects the developing brain is growing, so is our scientific insight into how we can offer the children we love resilient parenting, and how we can all take small steps to heal body and brain. Just as physical wounds and bruises heal, just as we can regain our muscle tone, we can recover function in under-connected areas of the brain. The brain and body are never static; they are always in the process of becoming and changing. ###

For Part II, “8 Ways People Recover From Post Childhood Adversity Syndrome,” CLICK HERE.

 

Donna Jackson Nakazawa is an award-winning science journalist interested in exploring the intersection between neuroscience, immunology, and the deepest inner workings of the human heart. In addition to this book, Childhood Disrupted, she has authored The Autoimmune Epidemic and The Last Best Cure. For more information on Donna and her work, visit her website.

 

 

Groundbreaking Research: Childhood Trauma and Issues of Adult Health (Guest: Donna Jackson Nakazawa)

BTRadioIntStress can be a good thing. In can cause us to stretch and grow to learn new skills and handle conflict effectively on our own. Without reasonable, normative stress in our lives, authentic accomplishments would be much fewer.

DNakazawaphotoBut heavy, chronic stress can be debilitating, especially when it’s a ongoing circumstance in  a child’s development. Scientists are calling these early toxic stress episodes Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACES.

We’ve known for some time about the impact of these experiences on a youngster’s emotional and psychological development. What is new is the research linking Adverse Childhood Experiences to chronic illnesses in adulthood, illnesses like heart disease, cancer and a whole range of autoimmune diseases.

According to our guest on this program, science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa, Adverse Childhood Experiences set the intensity of a youngster’s “Fight or Flight” response (including a chemical component called the “inflammatory response”) to “High,” and it stays there. There is no “Off” switch. As Donna explains in this interview and in her book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology and How You can Heal, just about any stress can bring on an extreme reaction, while the inflammatory “cocktail,” still set on “High,” begins to create damage to the youngster’s health and vitality. The picture of their health just a few decades later is often not a good one. (Scientists are now calling this the psychosocial “Theory of Everything.”)

DNakazawabookBut, thankfully, there is reason for hope and recovery. With therapies and activities available today, as well as changes in pediatric medicine, the inflammatory response can be brought back under control. Donna is here to share this good news, also.

Donna Jackson Nakazawa is an award-winning science journalist, public speaker and author of The Last Best Cure, a book in which she chronicles her own year-long journey to health. She’s also the author of The Autoimmune Epidemic. Donna lectures nationwide and has appeared on The Today Show, National Public Radio and ABC News. Her work has been featured on the cover of Parade and in Time Magazine, USA Today Weekend, Parenting, Psychology Today, and many other popular blogs and magazines. (25:41)

http://www.donnajacksonnakazawa.com

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