The sentiment what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger seems to be commonplace among those who espouse the virtues of resilience, grit, and mental toughness. But what happens when adversity strikes during childhood? What are the adult responses to an early life filled with not just adversity and trauma, but toxic stress? And more importantly, how do we recover? In her new book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal, award-winning science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa answers these questions and many more.
Nakazawa begins by challenging the rhetoric that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. She writes, “Cutting-edge research tells us that what doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger.” The research Nakazawa references is the public health research study, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which shows a clear scientific link between many types of childhood adversity and the adult onset of physical disease and mental health disorders.
Nakazawa gives three examples: Laura, who while appearing successful on the outside, suffers from a condition known as cardiac myopathy; John, who displays a warm open demeanor but battles an array of chronic illnesses; and Georgia, a woman who grew up in an Ivy League home yet is diagnosed with degenerative disc disease at twenty six years old. The common factor among all of these people, Nakazawa tells us, is an early life filled with too many adverse childhood experiences.
Drawing on a multitude of interesting scientific research, Nakazawa clearly demonstrates how these adverse childhood experiences change the architecture of the brain, the health of the immune system, trigger and sustain inflammatory responses, and create a pattern of over-reactivity and hypervigilance. Nakazawa quotes physician and researcher Vincent J. Filitti, “Time does not heal all wounds. One does not just get over something — not even fifty years later.”
Much of the reason for this, Nakazawa contends, is due to the fact that, in children, the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) is developing and healthy maturation hinges on the safety or lack of safety we encounter in the day-to-day environment. And when a young brain is repeatedly exposed to events that cause a stress response, the result is a chronic state of hypervigilance that carries forward into adulthood.
Early exposure to adverse experiences can also change the way the brain functions. Nakazawa points to the work of Margaret McCarthy, PhD, professor of neuroscience at the University of Maryland whose work has uncovered epigenetic changes in the brains of children exposed to trauma which cause permanent alterations in the way genes are expressed. Unable to regulate the response to stress, these children, as adults, can often feel as if they are living in a rattled cage, always on high alert, chronically uncertain, and battling an undercurrent of sadness.
Nakazawa writes, “When a young child faces emotional adversity or stressors, cells in the brain release a hormone that actually shrinks the size of the brain’s developing hippocampus — altering his or her ability to process emotion and manage stress. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies show that the higher an individual’s childhood trauma score, the smaller the cerebral gray matter, or brain volume, is in key processing areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, an area related to decision-making and self-regulatory skills; the amygdala, or fear processing center of the brain; and the sensory association cortices and cerebellum, both of which affect how we process and regulate emotions and mood.”
And yet Nakazawa also balances her position with research that demonstrates that some people are able to develop allostasis, or the ability to adapt over time to stressful emotional and physical trials, and return to a state of equilibrium and well-being. What makes the difference is often how toxic the stress is, whether we are unable to divulge difficult aspects of our lives, and interestingly, whether we perceive stress as positive or negative. Nakazawa quotes Stanford University psychologist, Kelly McGonigal, PhD, “The relationship between stress and early death was only true for people who also believed that stress is harmful to your health. People who experienced a lot of stress but did not view stress as harmful were no more likely to die, and had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.”
Despite how damaging adverse childhood experiences are, Nakazawa argues, they can be overcome. She outlines several steps, each with solid scientific backing. The healing journey, she tells us begins with first taking the ACE Survey, finding out our resilience score, writing and drawing about our experiences, practicing mindfulness meditation, performing tai chi and chi Qigong, developing mindsight, engaging in loving-kindness, implementing forgiveness, using trauma release exercises, and healing our gut microbiome. Therapy is also a helpful recovery step. Nakazawa writes, “Trauma patients show higher levels of damage to their DNA, but therapy actually changes the integrity of the DNA at the molecular level, even repairing DNA.”
Packed with illuminating research, Childhood Disrupted doesn’t just expose the agonizing costs of childhood trauma, but offers the promising science to argue that what tears you down may also be your single greatest impetus for growth.
Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal
Atria Books, July 2016
Paperback, 300 Pages