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

adverse childhood experiences beach et al candace pert childhood cohen et al depression genes inflammation kundalini yoga louise hay nih nocebo placebo psychoneuroimmunology relationships sickness syndrome stressor

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 diet, toxicant 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.

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 non-descript 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.

Interested in step-by-step support to help you optimize your health?

Vital Life Project is a community for like-minded wellness seekers in search of a better way to live with vitality in a world that can make it challenging to move toward this goal. This monthly membership provides guidance and accountability to help you make small changes in mindset and daily routine that can lead to radical shifts in health reclamation. Click below to learn more.

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About Dr. Kelly Brogan

KELLY BROGAN, MD, is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the New York Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your OwnOwn Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. Learn More