Written by Dr Rachel Hannam and Ashwin Segkar
Dark moments from our childhood – divorce, witnessing violence, a parent’s mental illness, emotional neglect, bullying, abuse – can stay with us as adults, even though we ‘feel fine’ most of the time. Research shows that adverse childhood experiences produce toxic levels of stress hormones that can affect the development of the neural networks in a child’s brain. In the past 20 years, researchers have shown that high scores on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) survey are highly predictive of adult mental, social and physical health problems later in life. The effects of these ACEs may be invisible, but they can weigh upon us decades later by leaving us feeling disconnected and unfulfilled, sapping our joy, or causing us to struggle with self-discipline and addiction. And while the raw emotion of the experience has passed, the defence mechanisms used to cope in earlier times persist and can sabotage us in subtle and various ways.
Don’t we just get over it?
Usually, we don’t. To effectively process trauma from ACEs, we need to process the emotions of earlier experiences, not diminish or avoid them. As children, we instinctively suppress feelings because we don’t know what else to do. And very likely there was no protective adult teaching us how to make sense of our big feelings. Or we get told by otherwise well-meaning parents to ‘stop crying’ or ‘toughen up’. Because we don’t end up feeling in real-time, we give those suppressed feelings a lasting place in our psyche.
Children are also prone to ‘magical thinking’ which means we interpret the ACEs in ways that damage our self-perception. For example, many children of divorcing parents will blame themselves for the divorce: ‘I caused this by being so naughty’. Or bullied children might think that they are less worthy than the other kids who aren’t mocked or harassed.
ACEs give rise to defence mechanisms. We play the clown to defuse tension. We shy away from intimacy to avoid getting hurt. Psychologists have names for these defences such as displacement, repression and sublimation. These patterns can last a lifetime. Our defences help us survive (and may be healthy at times) yet they can inflict an unhealthy toll on us and those we love unless we become aware of them.
How do we get past the past?
There are three stages to healing childhood wounds.
1. Reflecting 2. Processing. 3. Letting go.
Give yourself an hour or so to do the following exercise.
The first step is to reflect on your ACEs. Recall certain difficult experiences or incidents from your childhood that you believe impacted you then, or now. A good self-reflection question is: What happened in my early life (between 0-18) that I did not want or ask for?
Make a long list of these experiences if you need to. Look over the list and really appreciate your younger self for having lived through it. Then ask: Did I properly feel the emotions of these incidents at the time? Or did I go numb? Or did I act out in ways to try and make it more bearable?
What habits did you develop to try and cope at the time? How are those habits affecting you still? You might not want to unearth the repressed emotions. That’s understandable. But you will repeat what you don’t repair.
Take a break if you feel overwhelmed. It’s important to move at a pace that you can handle. Your ACEs happened a long time ago and you’ve been carrying the effects with you for many years. Be patient and gentle with your feelings.
Next, take time to deeply think through the impact of your ACEs. Journaling about a couple of adverse experiences in depth is useful. Go back into it and try to feel the emotions you did not feel at the time. This will bring back sadness, loneliness, anger, shame, or other pain. At first you will feel worse. Growth and healing also come with stress and pain. Think of it as remedial and temporary. The goal is to pull those feelings out from the depths of your unconscious and make them conscious. Experience-able. Go through the emotional pain without fear, knowing that feelings are transitory and will pass soon enough. Now it’s time to let go of the incident’s impact and the defence mechanisms it generated.
Realise that what happened is simply what happened. It doesn’t say anything about your worth or value. Accept that the past events happened. That was then, this is now. Your whole body starts to get the message: “It’s over!”. The feelings are just feelings. Realise you are a witness to them and not a victim of them. Keep witnessing them and their power will start to dissolve. You might like to write a letter to the person or people who hurt you or let you down, expressing your feelings and unmet needs, as well as your new found resolve. Don’t send the letter. Just express. And then let go.
This process is about facing the grief and pain of your unmet needs. It is a kind of grieving. Doing this multiple times changes the pathways in your brain. You are reprogramming your reactions, both to your own emotions and to others. You are replacing your previous fearful reactions with strong powerful ones.If you struggle to do emotional processing alone, find a psychologist or therapist to work it through with you. Working with our defences to make changes in our lives is rarely quick or easy. But in time, we get better at accepting difficult feelings and living by our values, even though we may still struggle sometimes.
The above exercise focuses on using the power of the mind to deal with specific experiences. However, we should also tackle the impact of childhood trauma by living a healthier lifestyle – one that can combat the negative effects more generally.
The lifestyle effect
Any distressing or traumatic incident puts our brains and bodies into a ‘fight or flight’ response, an evolutionary reaction that was always meant to be brief and relatively rare (we weren’t running from saber-toothed tigers every waking moment). In a dysfunctional home, or during periods of sustained anxiety, you endure elevated stress-hormones for a long period of time which can damage your endocrine and neuronal systems.
When we have had a traumatic or chaotic childhood, it’s easy to use drugs, alcohol, food or sex to cope. As many people know, drinking or drugging or any form of compulsive behaviour as a way of coping with residual stress from childhood will keep us stuck and only make things worse.
As an adult, it’s important to cultivate physical and emotional practices that support healing the body and brain, and which sustain the neurobiology of safety. We each have a certain amount of control over our brain, body and mind. One vital psychological practice, according to recent research, is the regular use of self-empathy or self-compassion as you deal with yourself and your own shortcomings. But be careful, self-empathy is not the same as self-pity. Self-pity isolates you from the world; self-empathy connects you to all the other imperfect human beings!
A vital physical practice for mental health is exercise. Decades of research shows that moderate strenuous exercise produces endorphins and enkephalins, the body’s natural feel-good hormones, which can make problems seem more manageable. Exercise creates a positive upward spiral that increases the sensitivity of dopamine receptors that signal reward, so exercise eventually becomes rewarding (even if that seems unimaginable at first).
Other lifestyle factors important for mental and emotional well-being include getting the right amount of sleep, maintaining good friendships, mindful breathing and meditation, and developing better cognitive and behavioural skills. These can all help you diminish the effects of trauma and prevent you from unconsciously living out the defence mechanisms that continue to sabotage you.
Even if you have had a laundry-list of adverse childhood experiences like Stav Davidson recounted in our first episode of Help Me! I’m a Comedian, it is nonetheless 100% possible to find the keys to a contented and fulfilling life.