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Childhood Trauma, Neglect and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

When we are born we are hard-wired to connect with our caregivers. Human beings mature slowly, our brains learn through social interaction and we are dependent upon our parents for our survival longer than any other mammal. When those connections, also known as attachment styles, are strong, the result is a more emotionally, psychological and physically healthy adult complete with a strong sense of self. However, when that fails to be the case, it commonly leads to poor health, fragile egos, and beliefs of not being enough or that the world is unsafe.

Science continues to find evidence to validate the vital link between our environment and our health. Research that explores the role that adverse childhood experiences play on the outcome of adult lives, now shows more than ever that the result of neglect and abuse in childhood looks like a measurable reduction in the size of the hippocampus in the brain. When this occurs, one become less able to effectively deal with the effects of stressful experiences. Chronically elevated levels of stress hormones like cortisol can literally kill off cells in the area of the brain that help to regulate stress. This then leads our nervous and hormonal systems to be perpetually on high alert, which then creates a positive feedback loop. Brain scans of children from abusive households can look similar to those of combat soldiers. These children are vigilant at detecting threats in their environments in the same way a soldier is trained to look for enemy combatants. (Current Biology, Eamon McCory, University College London. Dec. 2011)

There are certain ways in which the most important part of our bodies, the brain, continues to exhibit childhood wounds long into adulthood. This makes the statement “our biographies affect our biology ,” crystal clear. Here are some examples:

  • Maltreatment that happens in the first two to three years of life affects the hippocampus (an area that is crucial to emotional reactions and long term memory).
  • Neglect during infancy and sexual abuse that occur in elementary school-aged children can affect the corpus collosum (the area of the brain that helps you process social cues).
  • Emotional abuse between the ages of seven and nine often affects the superior temporal gyrus (the area facilitating spoken language).
  • High levels of the stress hormone cortisol before puberty affect the cerebellar vermis (which assists in proprioception, which controls your awareness of your body in space).
  • Trauma in the first seven years, i.e. being witness to domestic violence between ages five and puberty, and sexual abuse in adolescence, affect the cerebral cortex (area responsible for judgment and executive function).

One of the most comprehensive and ongoing scientific explorations exploring the correlation between childhood trauma and adult health and lifestyle choices is referred to as the ACE study. This refers to the often replicated Kaiser Permanente study on adverse childhood experiences (ACE) which included 17,000 people. The original study asked the participants to complete questionnaires about their childhood and adult health and relevant environmental factors. Mind you, these people were part of the Kaiser Permanente health care system, which meant that they carried private health insurance, In other words; they were not on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, within which demographic these adverse factors would likely loom even larger. The study concluded that the higher the incidence of these adverse experiences, the more likely they were to die younger than their peers. A score of 6 or higher ACEs led them to die on average of 20 years earlier. What constitutes an adverse childhood experience? The categories used for this study included abuse (physical, emotional, or sexual), neglect (physical or emotional), witnessing domestic violence, household substance abuse,  a household member that had been either incarcerated or suffered from mental illness or experienced parental separation or divorce.

To Get Your Own ACE score, click HERE

The high ACE scorers were more likely to be obese, to abuse substances, to initiate early sexual activity and to smoke earlier in life, all of which are high risk factors for a number of health conditions. The researchers found these individuals to be more prone to depression, pulmonary disease, liver disease, STDs, and cardiac disease to a statistically significant degree. Follow up studies have tied ACEs to physical conditions including migraines and a state of chronic inflammation. This study found that even one ACE made the likelihood of migraines higher.

With all this evidence of the connection between the environment a person is raised in, and their health, one might think that only in these extreme cases of adversity would you be at risk. Unfortunately that isn’t the case. Big “T” traumas (accidents, abuse, rape, etc.) are indeed physically and emotionally painful, but significant damage to one’s ability to live a healthy life (emotionally or otherwise) is due to small “T” traumas i.e.  a critical father, an overprotective mother, a teacher who made you feel stupid, etc. Those experiences form the foundation for belief systems and world-views that create major limitations and dysfunctional patterns of behavior.

The most important time during our lives in terms of building and formulating our beliefs, occurs from ages zero to six. Our brains emit four different types of brain waves, each one with a distinct frequency: beta (13-30 cycles per second), alpha (8-12 cycles per second), theta (4-8 cycles per second), and delta (.05-4 cycles per second). Theta brain waves occur when we are in states of deep meditation, and dreaming. Delta brain waves occur when you are sleeping without dreams. Children until the age of 6 spend the vast majority of their waking lives in theta and delta states which are primarily hypnogogic or hypnotized-like mental states. They constantly receive impressions and form perceptions about the world. The raw materials for these beliefs come primarily from our family of origin.

When we are in these deeply receptive states of mind, we take in our surroundings in order to learn rapidly about how the world operates without the benefit or addition of critical thinking skills. We learn to hold onto our mother’s hand when we cross a busy street or the result is disaster. If we weren’t in this receptive state we might question mom’s authority, want to see if we can walk across alone, or start analyzing different strategies regarding where to cross. Being in this state saves us time and energy from having to re-learn these lessons. Those sorts of associations (busy street requires attention) work to our benefit but other lessons learned may not be so useful.
Using the previous example, let’s imagine that you wanted to dance and sing across the street while holding mom’s hand. Your mother just noticed that one of her more pretentious and judgmental acquaintances was standing on the same corner. In an effort to not look like a mother with an out-of-control child, she grabs you roughly by the hand, scares you, looks meanly at you and says, “Why can’t you behave like a good girl?” This message might just have went directly into programming your subconscious mind with all sorts of limiting beliefs, such as: a good girl isn’t expressive, you have to be “normal” or in control at all times, or you’re a bad person, you don’t deserve your mother’s (therefore anyone else’s) love,  and/or that you need to always be concerned with how others see you. That event is a perfect example of a small “T” trauma.

Our sense of who we are, whether the world is a safe or scary place, or whether we deserve to have our dreams fulfilled, are primarily determined by these early experiences in our critical years. We can easily diminish the profound impact that these seemingly insignificant events have on our psyche with EFT. It’s important to note that as you use EFT, no one person can determine what was traumatic for someone else. If your parents were so called “helicopter parents” and they constantly hovered and came to your rescue at the slightest perturbation, then these small “t” traumas could have left you with the impression that you aren’t capable of surviving on your own. Perhaps you decided that you can’t make it without a romantic partner, or you are frozen by the thought of taking even the smallest risks in business. If your parents were on the opposite of the spectrum (and not present for you), then these small “T” traumas could have created the  feeling for you  that no one can ever  really meet your needs in a romantic relationship, or  maybe you engage in extremely risky social behaviors in an  attempt to  finally  get noticed.

Here are a few case studies that illustrate these points:

Casey grew up in a family where substance abuse was always present until she was nine. That’s when her parents got divorced and her mother joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Casey’s core issue was a sense of being easily abandoned. This manifested itself as an inability to attract a romantic partner. She also had a subconscious fear that she would be abandoned, even if she did find the right guy. Through EFT, these beliefs became conscious to her, which led to her tapping on specific instances where one or both of her parents were too drunk to make dinner for her. Within a few months of the sessions, Casey met Larry and they remain happily married.

Here’s another example. Trisha’s father was demanding and controlling, always insisting that all the children in the family needed to be perfect. Trisha learned early in her life that if she wanted his love and approval she needed to dismiss her own needs in favor of her father’s. This led to a lifelong pattern of always placing other’s needs before her own; the stereotypical people -pleaser. She became a nurse and worked intensely for the care of her patients. This pattern continued for many years and she took less and less care of her own needs, especially when she started her own family.  In her 30’s Trisha contracted Fibromyalgia Syndrome. With EFT, Trisha discovered that she was very uncomfortable setting limits with others, and that some part of her used having the chronic pain in order to point to a physical reason why she couldn’t help others (secondary gain). It was as if her body created boundaries for her, since she felt she couldn’t do this herself by just saying no. Using EFT to clear her fears around setting clear boundaries, and finding out what she really wanted to be doing with her life, Trisha was able to overcome all her symptoms of fibromyalgia. She is now a raw food caterer and is completely pain free.

Then there was Jerry’s mother who was emotionally violent and unpredictable. At an early age he knew that his situation was volatile. In his words, “The sh_t could hit the fan at any moment”. Jerry learned to be hyper-aware of how his mother was feeling, of her moods, trying as much as possible to avoid her. Jerry ended up marrying a woman who was exactly like his mother. Jerry started developing allergies in his 40s that left him debilitated much of the time. Jerry’s EFT coach zeroed in on key events in his childhood involving his mother. Most were very brief small “T” memories, such as a look she gave him, or the tone of voice she used with him in specific memories. After a few months of EFT sessions, Jerry’s allergic reactions are mostly gone and he has since filed for divorce.

Jason’s mother was controlled by his father in every imaginable way. She wasn’t allowed to drive a car, to work outside the home, or even to visit her own family during holidays. Whenever she did ask for something, his father’s reaction to her made the house shake. Jason came to EFT at the insistence of his boss. Jason had been having angry outbursts and had left several people in his firm in tears during staff meetings. Jason had learned from his family from a very early age that you had to be strong and that no one should ever be able to exert power over you, or you’d risk being squashed. After four sessions Jason resolved his anger management issue and was no longer at risk of losing his job.

The above types of disruptions to healthy connections between a child and parents/caregivers and resultant lack of inner peace are imprinted in our minds at the deepest levels. These traumatic incidences that are held onto by the nervous and energy systems, have an innate desire to be understood, processed, and integrated into the whole of who we are through the lessons we learn from them. This occurs through a phenomenon known as recapitulation, re-enactment or repetition compulsion. We re-create similar experiences in our lives on a subconscious level, in an attempt to integrate these old experiences and hopefully resolve and heal that which went awry so many years earlier. Re – enactment (as illustrated in the examples above) can look like choosing the wrong romantic partners (with behaviors similar to their parent’s), or attracting employers or employment that are less than ideal, yet they re-create feelings and scenarios that are familiar to us. When we use EFT to remove the charge from those childhood traumas, we leave behind the need for these re-enactments to occur. Another way of viewing this, is that we are no longer in vibrational alignment with those events and therefore do not need to attract similar events to limit who we can ultimately become; fully actualized human beings.

Research shows that EFT lowers the stress hormone cortisol in the body. When we consistently use EFT to neutralize the stress inducing effects generated by negatively impacting events from our past, we are given the opportunity to see that many of those events helped to shape us in positive ways as well. Then we can begin to see that we learned valuable lessons from those experiences and that they did indeed benefit in some ways. When this happens we really can say that “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

Authors Alina Frank and Craig Weiner