Your Childhood Trauma Is Killing You

But you can save yourself


Tosin Sanusi

3 years ago | 6 min read

Yeah, obviously”, you might be thinking. I’m sure we can all agree that childhood trauma reeks all kinds of havoc on a person’s life well into the adult years especially when it goes unresolved. You drink, smoke, or eat your worries away and you get sick, right? It seems pretty simple but our evolving understanding of how childhood adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children shows that trauma has a more complicated relationship with long-term health outcomes than we may think.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

A couple of years ago, I was assigned a written reflection on Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’s 2014 TED talk: How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime. As a pediatrician, Burke Harris, sought to address trauma in her practice after being introduced to the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.

In 1995, Kaiser Permanente and the CDC asked 17 500 adults about their history of exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) which include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, parental mental illness, parental substance dependence, parental incarceration, separations, or domestic violence. Each adversity counts as a point on a person’s ACE score. The data was then correlated to long-term health outcomes. Here are the results.

  • 67% of Americans had at least one ACE making them very common.
  • 1 in 8 Americans had 4 or more ACEs
  • For a person with four or more ACEs, the relative risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and hepatitis increases by 250%
  • Depression was 4 and a half times more likely for those with 4 or more ACEs
  • Suicidality is 12 times more likely for those with 4 or more ACEs
  • 7 or more ACES meant triple lifetime risk of lung cancer and three and a half times ischemic heart disease, the number one killer in America.

None of these health risks are solely the result of a person ‘giving up’ on maintaining a healthy lifestyle or being a ‘snowflake’. Exposure to childhood adversity affects numerous parts of the brain in a way that makes us vulnerable to an assortment of social struggles like addiction and learning difficulties as it affects the pleasure and reward centers of the brain associated with substance dependence as well as inhibits the prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive function and impulse control.

All of these factors explain why a person with ACEs might seek out risky behaviors. But even without risky behaviors, there’s an increased risk of developing heart disease or cancer. Why is that?

Dr. Burke Harris explained that humans are equipped with the fight or flight survival response which can save our lives in the presence of danger. Stress hormones come to the rescue by preparing the body to do whatever is necessary to survive but this effect is not meant to continue for extended periods of time.

Repeated activation of the body’s stress response system as a result of childhood adversity affects developing immune systems, hormonal systems, and the way DNA is replicated and as we‘ve seen in the data, the resulting health outcomes are devastating.

Dr. Burke Harris found the study eye-opening and expected the medical community to invest time and money into attacking ACEs proactively, before their dangerous effects cause long-term health problems. But as you can probably guess, like many people who care about making a difference, Burke Harris didn’t get the response she was seeking as others in the field were not as moved by the data.

It’s hard to pinpoint why trauma has been avoided so much by the medical community even though the facts point to a direct connection between adverse childhood adversity and health. Human beings are self-centered and perhaps there’s an assumption that those with trauma only belong to underprivileged or poor backgrounds, that the issue is a distant problem (like COVID in December 2019). In reality, while certain circumstances, like a low SES, create higher ACE scores, and need our immediate attention, trauma is a universal experience.

Trauma affects nearly all of us

The original ACES study was done in a majority Caucasian and college-educated population, privileged we could say. To tackle childhood trauma, we must stop marginalizing it as a problem for ‘those’ children, who look ‘like that’ or live ‘over there’. All children need healthy, nurturing environments to thrive, and when these needs are denied, regardless of a family’s wealth or social status, the results are detrimental to general well-being.

If we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we all know someone who was caught in the middle of a nasty divorce as a child or who had been abused. As mentioned, children and their bodies are extremely sensitive to the effects of adversity. It doesn't take a Dr. Phil worthy upbringing for a little person to be profoundly disturbed by negative life events.

In my previous position as a childcare worker, I had the chance to travel all over the city to different schools and neighborhoods.

Of course, I noticed class-based inequality, schools in affluent areas being prioritized over others, and touting less behavioral problems, but at every school, I noticed children who seemed preoccupied, anxious, and melancholy, like life was weighing on them every day. I wonder how much more we could have done for those kids if we knew their ACE scores.

The negative effects of ACEs can be reversible

Reading the data from the ACEs study feels depressing at first since it seems like the damage is done. I know that studying trauma in school made me think that there was no hope of feeling normal but I see now that trauma is extremely common as it affects the majority of us.

Even more comforting than the fact that no one who suffers trauma is alone in their struggle is the fact that there’s a lot we can do to reverse some of the negative effects. In an article published by Berkely’s online magazine, The Greater Good, Dr. Burke Harris answers a series of questions on ACEs and their influence on our lives.

When asked what an adult with ACEs should do now, Burke Harris highlighted the importance of simply understanding your ACEs by getting your score. It’s also important to decipher whether your stress response is overactive and what may trigger that for you.

“I don’t think forgetting about adversity or blaming it is useful. The first step is taking its measure and looking clearly at the impact and risk as neither a tragedy nor a fairy tale but a meaningful reality in between. Once you understand how your body and brain are primed to react in certain situations, you can start to be proactive about how you approach things. You can identify triggers and know how to support yourself and those you love.”
— Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, The Deepest Well

In terms of actionable steps, evidence-based strategies like regular exercise, getting enough sleep, and meditation are beneficial. Many have also found inner child healing to be effective in addressing needs that sometimes go unmet in childhood, causing us to live with deep voids well into our adulthood.

Inner child healing is a journey to self-discovery that involves unearthing the wounds that we repress in order to survive. It can be done alone or with a licensed professional depending on each person’s circumstances.

The first step is identifying and acknowledging the inner child. Are they fearful? Are they lonely? As an adult doing this kind of work, you must let your younger self know that their pain is not their fault, that they tried their best, that they are worthy of love.

Benefits of inner child healing include the ability to release child-like behaviors that keep us trapped in the past, self-compassion, the ability to feel after years of numbing emotions for protection, and the ability to establish boundaries on your own terms. All of these benefits are extremely stress-relieving and certainly wouldn’t hurt your chances of reversing the negative health consequences of your childhood trauma.

Childhood trauma is a far-reaching pandemic with deadly effects and it has gone ignored for too long. Instead of facing the issue head-on through the great work of people like Dr. Burke Harris, as a society, we often choose to blame many health issues on individuals who we deem too sensitive or weak to handle everyday life.

The science proves a direct link between adverse childhood experiences and some of the most fatal illnesses out there. The options for treating childhood trauma are vast and if you still feel haunted by your own, rest assured that there is hope.


Created by

Tosin Sanusi







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