“The body does not forget its history.” --Donna Jackson Nakazawa
As parents, we like to reassure ourselves that children are resilient and that our inevitable parenting mistakes needn’t have any lasting impact. New research, however, suggests we may be kidding ourselves.
In an excerpt at Aeon from her book CHILDHOOD DISRUPTED, Donna Jackson Nakazawa explains the physical price we can pay, as adults, for trauma that took place 10, 20, even 30 years ago. New findings in neuroscience, psychology and immunology tell us that the adversity we face during childhood has farther-reaching consequences than we might ever have imagined. Today, in labs across the country, neuroscientists are peering into the once-inscrutable brain-body connection, and breaking down, on a biochemical level, exactly how the stress we experience during childhood and adolescence catches up with us when we are adults, altering our bodies, our cells, and even our DNA.
These findings shouldn’t surprise us. We know, writes Nakazawa, that Emotional stress in adult life affects us on a physical level in quantifiable, life-altering ways. We all know that when we are stressed, chemicals and hormones can flush our body and increase levels of inflammation. That’s why stressful events in adult life are correlated with the likelihood of getting a cold or having a heart attack.
Healthy adults learn ways (too often dysfunctional) to deal with stress, but children have less experience, less information, and less autonomy in managing it; they often have no choice but to repress their feelings. As a result, when children or teens face adversity and especially unpredictable stressors, they are left with deeper, longer‑lasting scars…In ideal circumstances, a child learns to respond to stress, and recover from it, learning resilience. But kids who’ve faced chronic, unpredictable stress undergo biological changes that cause their inflammatory stress response to stay activated.
The long-term consequences are staggering:
Experiencing stress in childhood changes your set point of wellbeing for decades to come. In [some] people…the endocrine and immune systems are churning out a damaging and inflammatory cocktail of stress neurochemicals in response to even small stressors – an unexpected bill, a disagreement with their spouse, a car that swerves in front of them on the highway, a creak on the staircase – for the rest of their lives. They might find themselves overreacting to, and less able to recover from, the inevitable stressors of life. They’re always responding. And all the while, they’re unwittingly marinating in inflammatory chemicals, which sets the stage for full-throttle disease down the road, in the form of autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, fibroid tumours, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, migraines and asthma.
It turns out that William Faulkner was more right than he knew when he wrote “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” Childhood experiences live on in our very marrow:
Two-thirds of American adults are carrying wounds from childhood quietly into adulthood, with little or no idea of the extent to which these wounds affect their daily health and wellbeing. Something that happened to you when you were five or 15 can land you in the hospital 30 years later, whether that something was headline news, or happened quietly, without anyone else knowing it, in the living room of your childhood home.
But all this applies only to children who suffer extreme trauma, right? Wrong:
The adversity a child faces doesn’t have to be severe abuse in order to create deep biophysical changes that can lead to chronic health conditions in adulthood. Chronic parental discord; enduring low-dose humiliation or blame and shame; chronic teasing; the quiet divorce between two secretly seething parents; a parent’s premature exit from a child’s life; the emotional scars of growing up with a hypercritical, unsteady, narcissistic, bipolar, alcoholic, addicted or depressed parent; physical or emotional abuse or neglect: these happen in all too many families. Although the details of individual adverse experiences differ from one home to another and from one neighbourhood to another, they are all precursors to the same organic chemical changes deep in the gray matter of the developing brain.
It may or may not come as news that ordinary life wounds us, but it’s jarring to learn how devastating the damage can be. Ms. Nakazawa does not want that to be the last word, though; her book is about putting this knowledge to use and learning “new strategies and modalities to come back to who it is we really are, and who it was we might have been had we not encountered childhood adversity in the first place.”
There will be those who argue that adversity molds us; are we supposed to pamper and shelter our children? After all, pressure makes diamonds, and everyone gets tested by life; why should we treat normal childhood adversity as being pathological? Ms. Nakazawa’s book, and the research it contains, provides the answer: because the wounds we receive as children too often never heal, and because the price we pay for living with them is too costly.