The Invisible Driver
Often in adulthood, it is easy to look at someone’s life choices and--depending on how those choices have affected their quality of life--make a harsh judgement that points the finger at their decisions. Especially if as an individual, the finger-pointer leads a life that seemingly checks off all the boxes. Perhaps he or she thinks “I did xyz, or chose to lead my life in this fashion, so everyone should be able to take power over their life in this way.” However, according to recent studies into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), this train of thought is simply not always the case.
According to ACEs’ studies, negative childhood experiences dating back as early as time spent within the womb can later affect quality of life in adulthood. For example, if the mother experiences high levels of stress while pregnant, those stress levels can affect the DNA of the growing child, and subsequently that child’s response to stress and other emotions once born. What could seem like someone who is “overly dramatic” or prone to creating high-intensity situations for themselves, is in reality a genetic predisposition to respond sensitively and possibly become addicted to certain triggers and emotions. This physical reaction to stress happens due to a process known as gene methylation, where chemicals released from a stressed mother adhere to the baby’s genes responsible for regulating stress, inhibiting the genes from properly managing stress in the future. Harmful hormones are released as a result, which can short-circuit the brain’s ability to make decisions, and these genes become readjusted to immediately over-react to minor/everyday stressors for life. Each time this response is initiated, it results in inflammation. Overtime, this constant inflammation builds up and creates larger issues such as heart disease, cancer, depression, and auto immune diseases. This phenomenon of emotional responses being passed down through DNA is a part of a wider field of study known as epigenetics.
Indeed, experiencing traumatic events early in life can result in hypersensitivity and hypervigilance. Emotionally and physically taxing events such as living with someone who is struggling with addiction, witnessing domestic violence, or experiencing emotional abuse are just a few examples of household conditions which can lead to chronic mental, social, and physical health issues down the road (Novais et al., 2021). Conditions such as heart disease, depression, hepatitis, and lung cancer—though seemingly unrelated to childhood trauma—can actually be the result of enduring a toxic home life for an extended period of time. Take for example the condition of lung cancer. Health studies have proven that the possibility of contracting lung cancer can be linked to smoking. Someone who does not smoke may look at someone who chain smokes--and is undoubtedly more at risk for contracting lung cancer--and wonder why the idea of continuing to smoke is more appealing than adding years to his or her life. The non-smoker may think that someone who habitually smokes cigarettes is simply addicted to nicotine and has a hard time breaking the habit. It is important to consider the possible ACEs that could be causing this behavior. Someone with just one or multiple ACEs might often experience anxiety, depression, or an impending sense of doom. When nicotine enters the system, it acts as a soother to the nervous system, and temporarily the smoker is able to achieve the sensation of a regulated nervous system. The smoker experiences a false sense of temporary euphoria and has a better grip on their emotions overall. It is in fact not the nicotine he or she is addicted to, but the sensation of temporary peace within. When someone grows up in a household where they were often in intense or toxic situations, experiencing this for the first time can feel like a high. Thus, it is the need for nicotine to achieve this sensation that creates a dependency on smoking and increases an individual’s likelihood for contracting lung cancer later down the line, more so than someone who grew up in a relatively healthy childhood environment.
Luckily, there are ways to counteract and even neutralize the effects of ACEs in some cases with the help of positive childhood experiences (PCEs). These positive experiences are crucial for salvaging the possibility of an overall healthy outlook on childhood. For example, having two or more reliable, non-parent adults express a genuine interest in the child can positively counteract the effects of ACEs. Participating in community traditions is another example of a positive childhood experience. Many of the examples of PCEs encourage and foster community and support, serving to counteract the feelings of isolation and mistrust which can occur after enduring trauma in interpersonal relationships. Through various studies, researchers have found that the only way to heal the effects of traumatic interpersonal relationships--though seemingly counterintuitive--is through creating intentional, trust-building relationships. Positive experiences can be used to instill resiliency and create protection against ACEs. These steps focus on creating safe, encouraging environments, instead of the behaviors that may occur as a result of experiencing strife in childhood (Purvis et al., 2013).
In addition to fostering healthy interpersonal relationships, a healthy intrapersonal (internal) relationship is also important for rewiring the body’s response to stress. One way of soothing the nervous system is through practicing breath awareness. When was the last time you took a deep breath without it being the result of irritation? Signs of a dysregulated nervous system include the feelings of tension or strained breathing during moments absent of stress. When practicing mindful breathing, bringing your attention to the breath’s current state is the first step to regulating. Often you will find that the breathing is strained, fast, and shallow. Once you have noticed your breathing, you might naturally notice how uncomfortable it is, and take the opportunity to begin gradually lengthening each breath in and out. Take extra care to feel the belly expand with air with each breath in, and retract with each breath expelled outwards. For more in depth breathing exercises, see the resources beneath this article.
Fostering feelings of forgiveness and gratitude are also powerful tools for soothing the nervous system. Journaling is a great way to incorporate forgiveness and gratitude into daily practice. To practice forgiveness, start by writing about a time someone forgave you. How did it feel to be forgiven? Relieving? Allow that feeling to wash over your nervous system. Stay with that emotion for a little while, then when you’re ready, bring your attention to someone who could benefit from your gift of forgiveness. Note that forgiveness is not necessarily for the other person, but can instead play a key role in releasing built up anger and tension within yourself, creating room for other emotions to flow freely.
Finally, consider dedicating a journal entry to expressing gratitude. What are some things that you feel have helped to sustain you all this time in your journey? Try making a list of twenty things, with the format of “I am thankful for_____, without it I never would have _____.” Then, try making a list of twenty things that you are presently grateful for. Don’t get hung up with just the large, obvious things. Are you grateful for the warm sun during the winter months? Maybe the delicious tea you drank this morning? Practicing gratitude is an excellent way to ground you within the moment, where you now have power and options that you-- and many others-- may have felt stripped of long, long ago.
Resources on how to positively impact childhood experience
Some citations and added scientific research information
Blogs/Websites about ACEs/PACEs:
Take the ACEs assessment: