All in the Family: 4 Steps Toward Healing Adverse Childhood Experiences

Kelly Brogan, MD, ABIHM
12
2221

Ever have an extreme reaction to someone’s behavior? Like your husband is eating crackers, and just the sound of his chewing made you want to strangle him?

We all have different buttons to be pushed, particularly when we are feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, or vulnerable, but who or what sets these buttons in place to be activated?

As a prescribing conventional psychiatrist, I spent many years privately eye-rolling the notion that our childhoods matter. This eye roll was nurtured by medical training that positioned the chemical imbalance theory and mix-and-match medications as real treatment with an optional side-dish of years-on-the-couch psychotherapy. Why would childhood experiences matter if your brain is broken because of your bad genes? Childhood experiences wouldn’t matter any more than diettoxicant exposures, or relationship tensions — because your symptom all come from your misfiring brain chemicals!

Biology vs. Psychology: Is it either or?

What’s amazing about the newest science is that it tells a poetic story of complexity. No longer is it one gene for one ill for one pill. Now, we have researchers dedicated to coloring in the nuances of psychoneuroimmunology — the interconnection between our beliefs, thoughts, brains, guts, hormones, and immune systems.

It’s a web, and it’s a highly personal one.

Some of the earlier research in this field focused on the role of depression as an adaptive collection of symptoms that were designed to help an individual respond to a stressor and to heal. Called sickness syndrome in the literature, an interesting aspect of these symptoms — beyond social avoidance, minimal interest in sex, food, and increased desire to withdraw and rest — is hyperactivation of ruminative processes. That means that depressive symptoms include thinking and focusing in order to solve a problem — perhaps because we are capable, always, of resolving our own challenges.

This model of depression, which has been extensively documented in the scientific literature, characterizes the disease as an inflammatory response to a stressor. And the stressors list is long these days. Out of sync with our evolution, our immunoinflammatory systems are on perma-freak-out. Our minds, bodies, and spirits are screaming, NO! Stop, pay attention, and wake up to where things are off. What are your stressors? Could it be nutrition? Or your environment? Is it your relationships? Perhaps your disregard for sleep? Are you treating your body like a rental car?

Inflammation is simply the language of disharmony.

And the body, the mind, and the spirit speak this language. Our symptoms emerge from this matrix of us-ness.

But what is the one element that can make or break your healing potential?

You are what you think… and what you were told to think

I bet you think you know who you are. And you base this assumption on your opinions, your relationships, your job, your religion — or lack thereof. But what if all of that were to change, as it does for almost every patient I work with as she wakes up to her essential self? Who would you be then?

You’d find that you’d still be you. Just with different identity trappings. We can change. And we can specifically change our thoughts and our beliefs…when we are ready to.

Through my study of placebo/nocebo, I have concluded that beliefs are the single most powerful predictor of clinical outcomes. That said, it’s probably a good idea to get clear on what your beliefs are, and where they came from.

Universally, the origins of these beliefs is our childhood years. It turns out that our childhoods DO matter!

In a fascinating study by Beach et al, researchers studied African Americans to investigate the relationship between parenting style, inflammation, and later-life depression. Of note, some evidence suggests that the inflammation-depression connection is even more reliably evident in African Americans.

In this 18 year longitudinal study of 413 African American children, researchers assessed parent-child relationships at age 10, inflammatory markers and depressive symptoms at age 28, and potential mediators in early young adulthood at ages 21 and 24.

They found that the relationship between depression and inflammation may depend upon parent-child dynamics. Notably, supportive parenting seems to protect against inflammation-induced depression. These results suggest that supportive (instead of harsh) parenting lays down beliefs like “I’m loved, I can trust my body, I have enough, etc.” that serve to override the biological messaging that otherwise may contribute to depressive symptoms.

These foundational thoughts create the lens of stress perception and, potentially, subsequent illness.

Not unlike the Cohen et al study that demonstrated that people who perceived themselves as healthy were protected against clinical symptoms of a cold — even if they were “infected” by the virus.

The researchers propose that the relationship between inflammation and depression may be qualitatively affected, not just quantitatively, by parenting styles — meaning that healthy parenting doesn’t just mean less inflammation. It means that the body and mind have a different kind of relationship — a more resilient one.

The conclusion?

Early negative parenting elevates both inflammation and depressive symptoms during adulthood and increases the likelihood that problems in adult relationships with a romantic partner will amplify inflammation still further, indirectly amplifying depressive symptoms.

adverse childhood experiences

In short:

Early life experiences matter

It turns out that our stress response and inflammatory modeling are set early in our childhood. While our infant microbiome certainly lays a foundation, our beliefs and the thoughts that run like a ticker tape under our life experience cannot be underemphasized. Our life experience includes the jobs we choose, the friends we vibe with, and the partners we love and often love to hate. I have come to the conclusion that we all shape our reality around a story that we have internalized about the world and our role in it. A story that was penned in our early years.

Romantic partnerships matter

Because they can heal you, as Beach et al demonstrate. Or they can drive your soul to rebel in the form of depressive episodes. In fact, the authors reference a study showing that intimate partner relational problems were associated with a 2.7 fold increase in major depressive episodes in the following 12 months. These relationships can be a cage or a temple. This may be why, as my patients awaken to their essential selves, they need to break out of the marital construction they established while medicated… and my near-100% divorce rate from start to finish of recovery work is proof that often these relationship dissolutions are part of a necessary shedding process. But relationship can also be a healing vessel, particularly when there is a bedrock of soul-level commitment to realness, trust, and love.

How can we heal our pasts?

What’s done is done, right? Maybe you suffered severe abuse — sexual, physical, or emotional. Or maybe your mother said something to you one day when you were 7 that laid down the cellular programming for a fearful life.

How do we integrate this dissonance? Ignore it? Medicate it? Tough it out?

4 Steps Toward Healing Your Childhood

Say it, see it

First things first, look under all of the stones in your childhood garden. Check out the creepy crawlies and see what’s there. Write down the most disturbing recollections you have in your mind (it’s ok to destroy it afterward), express these memories to someone you trust, or just say them to yourself in the mirror. Put words to your experiences and beliefs so that there isn’t just this looming dark power over your consciousness. And get clear on your mental and emotional programs.

Take a minute to write down what you were told, growing up, about:

  • Money
  • Sex
  • Love
  • Your body
  • Disease
  • The environment/nature

What were all of the negative things ever said about you?

These beliefs are in there, framing the stage of your life, choosing the characters, and directing the pit orchestra.

Let go… for your own good

Easier said than done, I know. Anger and pain is real. It needs to be felt, acknowledged, and released. But resentment steals your vital force energy. So reclaim that energy…you need it! A powerful method is a meditation from Louise Hay that involves recognizing the fact that we are all victims of victims. This doesn’t let any parent off the hook for what might have been heinous behavior and unconscionable choices. It simply softens the hard places in you so that you can heal.

Essentially, the meditation asks you to envision your father, and then your mother, and then yourself as a frightened, crying toddler or child. You console this toddler version of each person and then shrink them down to a size that can fit into your heart. You place them there, and then you feel the humanization and integration of this simple exercise.

Free your body

As the late NIH researcher and psychoneuroimmunology pioneer Candace Pert demonstrated, our emotions are encoded all over our bodies. Her foundational work identifying and tracking neuropeptides showed direct chemical communication between our brains and bodies. Fortunately, there are amazing modalities available to release emotions — a release which can sometimes feel like a wave of nondescript tears or an upwelling of primal energy.

My top picks are:

Clarity breathwork: this is a chaperoned or group experience that involves generating states of release through hour-long breathing sessions

Wisdom Healing Qigong: straight out of the Chinese “Medicineless Hospital,” Master MingTong Gu has brought the radically powerful ancient self-healing protocols of qigong to the US. Consisting of simple movements, visualization, and sounds, this modality has risen to the top of my list for liberating the body of stuck patterns of illness

EFT: also called tapping, this self-directed methodology reprograms your thoughts through acupressure point stimulation and affirmations, and allows the body to let go of traumatic life experiences by calming the nervous system and sending the body a signal of safety

Kundalini yoga: this practice (particularly, my pre-dawn commitment to it) has rewired my nervous system and allowed me the strength to take on the more challenging work of self-examination and focus my attention on healing deep fissures in my consciousness

Support your relationship

If relationships are to heal, they need support. My top resources are:

Imago therapy: focused on how our childhood traumas recapitulate themselves later in our adult relationships, this approach is communication-centered to maximize the healing capacity of your connection

Kim Anami: a pioneer in sacred sexuality, Kim teaches men, women, and couples how to heal through self-embodiment, sensuality, and pleasure

Mating in Captivity: the title of her book says it all. Esther Perel’s vanguard approach to marital infidelity and flagging intimacy helps to contextualize the challenges of the modern day relationship in a tribe-less, community-less society that asks our partners to be our best friend, lover, business collaborator, co-parent, and spiritual companion all in one

Far from being flesh robots surviving on a dead rock in the middle of nowhere, we are here on Earth for a reason, and each one of us has a special journey to make. In fact, many believe, myself included, that we choose exactly the circumstances of our incarnation, right down to our parents. And through that lens, we glimpse the possibility that our adversity is designed to push us to the brink in order to transform us, and we invite a deep experience of healing. Depression, and its increased incidence in those who have experienced inflammation-promoting childhood adversity, is an invitation to begin this healing work. To finally send the body, mind, and spirit that signal of safety it longs for, so that the real you can emerge.

12 COMMENTS

    • littleturtle,

      I’m no expert on this; but under:-

      “Yoga for Depression the Research”

      Note No 6.
      “…Anti-inflammatory effects – Kaliman et al (2014) found enhanced genomic expression of anti-inflammatory genes and suppression of inflammatory in a group of expert meditators. There is a theory in functional medicine which suggests that the negative mood symptoms of anxiety and depression are actually a by product of the body’s innate alarm system, altering the individual of immune system activation due to inflammation in the body. Therefore, current researchers are now exploring the correlation between high levels of inflammatory cytokines and mental health symptoms….”

  1. Psychotherapy and talk about ‘healing’ is simply a way to finish the work of the abusers! Even if the survivor is no longer a child, that they would eventually end up in the office of a Psychiatrist or Psychotherapist is quite predictable.

    And a psychiatrist or psychotherapist is never going to do anything to objectively redress the wrongs perpetrated, or to change the ways our society supports child exploitation and sides with the abusers.

    No of course not, their job is to tell the survivors that they have no choice but just to live with the situation, and that it is really after all they who are the ones at fault for not seeing this earlier.

    And this is why Jeffrey Masson, former Curator of the Sigmund Freud Institute in Vienna, says unequivocally that the “practice of psychotherapy is wrong because it is profiting from the misery of others”.

    https://www.amazon.com/Against-Therapy-J-Moussaieff-Masson/dp/1567510221

    And Masson also says that every single kind of issue that people try to deal with in the therapist’s office should be dealt with in some other venue.

    People feel anguish, distress, pain, fear, because their social and civil standing have been compromised, and so their survival is being threatened. And so then being told about healing and forgiveness is just another layer of abuse. It all works like the bogus doctrine of Social Darwinism, blaming those who are marginalized for their own marginalization.

    There are two necessary steps to restoring social and civil standing. First, demonstrating the ability to politically organize and fight back. And second, demonstrating willingness and ability to risk life and liberty in defending self and others. This is how one regains a legitimated biography.

    A therapist’s office is where survivors are conned with this promise of ‘healing’ into confessing their anger on the couch and into celebrating their own impotence by punching pillows and screaming at them.

    I currently have a friend who has a heart condition and is getting his primary care through the County Hospital. But they are now sending him to a psychiatrist who wants to put him on drugs. I am helping him to find a lawyer, and I have coached him on how to stand up for himself and refuse to see or talk with this psychiatrist.

    I told him that as I see it, we should all be picketing and passing out fliers in front of the County Hospital, and then also going after White Suburbia’s Fix-My-Kid Doctors.

    • I just have to say, TirelessFighter3, whoever you are, I think you’ve just changed my life! I had a mental health breakdown 2 years ago, I had to give up work, but it’s also led me to understand that I was abused and suffered trauma as a child. Ever since then I’ve been trying to ‘heal’ through psychotherapy and self-help reading. I’ve read some validating books, but others made me really angry, as did the therapy in the end.

      I’ve been trying to articulate why I feel so angry with so many of the ideas and theories that are supposed to help me heal. You’ve absolutely summed it up for me and it’s now clear in my mind.

      I’m supposed to be angry. It’s a reasonable and healthy reaction to what I went through as a child and crucially, what others go through too. It’s a reasonable reaction to therapy that failed to even properly validate that I’ve been abused, even when I disclosed illegal things that were done to me, and located my problems in my head. The causes of my distress are external, societal and I need to use my anger in a positive way to make a difference in the world, however big or small. I’ve been told by books and people that the way forward is to forgive my abusers and even to forgive myself, which is insulting because I was a victim and a child and not to blame. And told that that no-one can make me feel anything, as though my pain at being abused was my own fault for allowing myself to feel it, and as though I can ‘get better’ by loosening my grip on reality and accepting that lie.

      Like, why is the answer to being the victim of crimes, psychotherapy. It isn’t. If your car is stolen or your house is burgled, society helps you by confirming that the thieves are wrong and bringing them to justice. No-one would dream of suggesting therapy instead. So why are violent crimes against the person which are far more serious treated that way. Why don’t therapists offer guidance and help with reporting crimes as an option for their clients to consider when abuse is disclosed? I agree with what you’re saying, that survivors are punished and abused yet again by social structures and by most forms of psychotherapy.

      Why didn’t I click before? I did it when I was younger – I was abused in relationships in my 20s, too, since I was vulnerable after my childhood, and ended up helping myself by recognising that there is a massive problem in society with this stuff going on (relationship abuse due to power differentials and bystanders’ refusal to believe or see it) and that it was not my fault and that I was right to be angry. And I didn’t get any therapy. Instead I volunteered as an advice worker to help people in poverty, and this turned into a 12 year career. I listened and validated them as some of them poured their hearts out about abusive situations they’d been in, and were currently in; somehow they recognised me as a fellow survivor, and I helped some of them escape abusers as well as helping them with the social deprivation and money problems they were having because of oppressive power structures. I fought for justice for my clients. I made my clients better off by over £600,000 in total in my most productive year by advocating for their rights and getting them some social justice.

      Then I broke down and had to take a career break. And somewhere along the way I got lost in psychology and ‘therapeutic’ ideology. I forgot what I’d learnt. I didn’t click that I could react to my childhood abuse in the same way as my relationship abuse. Because I pursued therapy and psychological self-help. It clouded me. I forgot that social activism was relevant to my situation (partly because I felt a failure for giving my job up). I read damaging things that implied that I had only enjoyed helping others for selfish and ‘unhealthy’ unconscious reasons. That made me feel I’d achieved nothing in life, that I was a fraud and that all the work I’d done counted for nothing. I only realise now that these factors actually caused me to sink into a deep depression and become incapacitated while I was trying to ‘find myself’.

      I know I’ve rambled on about myself a lot here, but I really want you to know how much you’ve changed my life and set me on a path towards a legitimated biography, as you say. I was lost, but realise now that I was trying to heal through compliance with a lie, and that those ideas have made me worse. I’m going to read the book you suggested right now. I’m going to write more of this stuff. I’m going to find people who are fighting for the rights of survivors and join them. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, seriously <3

      • amikatari,

        Talk about healing is another way of abusing survivors and helping the perpetrators. And self-help books are as abusive as therapy, except for the fact that it is easier for you to put the book down if you do not agree with it.

        We all live in a world which is abusive. It is no less so today than it was when we were children. And so the adult survivor is just as marginalized and preyed on as they ever were. Its just that the methods and the pedagogy manuals and the talk of the therapists continues to get slicker.

        The way we relegitimate our biographies is not via Therapy or Recovery, it is by asserting ourselves, asserting our wills, and talking political and legal action. We gain legitimacy in how we are able to politically organize, and in how we stand up for ourselves and others.

        Thank you for posting!!

    • Childhood experiences do matter, and everybody has childhood trauma. If there’s unfulfilled trauma from childhood it will present itself in the present. I think it’s important to get trauma sorted out and not get strung out on endless therapy.

      I suffered from terrible trauma myself; it was neuroleptic withdrawal induced and the ‘meditation’ approach worked. The ‘meditation’ approach also worked for everything else.

  2. Thank you for your article I wanted to comment on Kundalini yoga. There are many teachers using various techniques and while some benefit is realized by some, the stimulation of kundalini can result in un anticipated results which can be difficult for the person experiencing them. I am not knowledgeable about the complex workings of these risings but In my case the sudden rise of kundalini resulted in a psychosis which lasted for weeks. Many teachers have techniques to produce this rising but lack the knowledge of how to deal with the effects when they become too disrupting. Also I have been told that it is possible to open areas that are not ready to be opened and then there is not much that can be done except to ride out the effects. This stuff is powerful and I am not sure how one can know who to trust with ones openings, just a note of caution. I have found that meditating and allowing these openings to happen when the timing is not decided by anyone is a smoother path but of course there are no ways to predict outcomes when doing spiritual work.

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