I am assuming that most people who are students of trauma are familiar with the ACEs research. If you are not, I highly recommend you go to ACEsConnection.com, view the Nadine Burke-Harris Ted talk or check out the ACEs research posted on the CDC website to learn more.
The ACEs research was groundbreaking in terms of acknowledging and validating the powerful, deeply wounding impact of adverse childhood experiences, not only in the lives of the child experiencing them but as a predictor of future physical, emotional, mental and relational health issues.
Today’s blog focuses on the outstanding book by Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression-And the Unexpected Solutions. Beginning on page 241, he describes research created by Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-author of the original ACEs studies. He wondered the following: “What if, when a patient checked that they had suffered a trauma in childhood, the doctor waited until they next came in for healthcare of any kind, and asked the patient what about it? Would that make any difference?”
What they found when they invited patients to talk about their childhood experiences and whether their experiences had negative long-term effects was powerful. Their original goal was to offer patients two things: an opportunity to describe their traumatic experience to help them make sense of it and to show them that they would not be judged because of that experience but rather would be shown compassion.
While some patients did not choose to share their stories, many did. They then followed up to see if there was any impact when sharing a story with a compassionate authority figure. Hari shares the results of two research projects: in one, those who shared their stories were 35% less likely to return for medical help and in the other they were 50% less likely to come back to the doctor saying they felt physically ill, or seeking drugs, in the following year.
Hari concluded that these folks reduced their visits to the doctor because they were actually feeling less anxious and less unhealthy. Hari asked the question, “How could that be?”
He shares what Felitti suspected, that the underlying reason for these impressive statistics involved something to do with shame. “In that very brief process,” he told Hari, “one person tells somebody else who is important to them… something they regard as deeply shameful about themselves, typically for the first time in their life. And [she] comes out of that with the realization— ‘I still seem to be accepted by this person,’it’s potentially transformative.”
Hari concludes, “What this suggests is it’s not just the childhood trauma in itself that causes these problems, including depression and anxiety—it’s hiding away the childhood trauma. It’s not telling anyone because you’re ashamed. When you lock it away in your mind, it festers, and the sense of shame grows. As a doctor, Vincent can’t invent time machines to go back and prevent abuse. But he can help his patients to stop hiding, and to stop feeling ashamed.”
This is even more evidence of the power of relationships to promote recovery and healing from unresolved trauma, especially trauma experienced in childhood. The key to those potentially healing relationships involves transmitting messages of loving acceptance, and appreciation and openness to hearing difficult stories. It involves expressing high degrees of compassion and being sure not to transmit messages that are shaming or judgmental.
I refer you back to my previous blogs that offer specific suggestions on the types of communication that meet needs of trauma-impacted children and adults. Learning these approaches is a very effective way to build and develop relational dynamics that promote the kind of healing the trauma-impacted deserve.
Invitation to Reflect
- How does this researched information enhance your understanding of what someone with a history of childhood adversity needs? How does that impact how you feel towards someone who you know or suspect has experienced childhood adversity?
- If you are someone who has one or more ACEs, how does this information impact your understanding of what you might need? Does it resonate with what Hari discovered about how people are reluctant to share their stories because of deep-seated shame?
- To what extent does this motivate you to become even more aware of the power you have to influence healing for someone with unresolved trauma?
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute