Adverse Childhood Experiences & Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
Repeated adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can change the body, brain, nervous system and ultimately an entire life.
You may be incredibly resilient. The person with an easier life and more harmonious childhood may appear more resilient, but they have not been tested in the same ways.
You may be an incredibly resourceful person — likewise, life has probably helped you hone these skills. You may be highly intelligent, empathic, kind or creative. You may feel very connected to your spiritual self. You may be navigating life from your heart and your smarts and yet wonder it’s not coming together for you.
It’s a big word, trauma. We hear it most often when talking about returned service people who develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing the horrors of war. These people return from war and can’t sleep. They are triggered by flashbacks and memories, may be angry or hostile, and may have difficulty resuming loving relationships with partners and family.
When communities are distressed after a natural disaster wipes out their homes and towns, it is easy to see this as unusual and to understand the grief. Often the phenomenon of communities pulling together is a saving grace for survivors and an important emotional resource as well.
Complex PTSD is less well understood. This relates to repeated abusive and traumatic situations, often during childhood. The child is unable to escape from an abusive or damaging family dynamic. Complex PTSD occurs before the child’s brain systems, cognitive abilities and sense of self are properly formed. It affects the way the brain and its communication systems develop, ensuring the individual responds to threat and danger at every turn.
This is a critical survival strategy in the threatening environment. The amygdala responds quickly and decisively to small signs of threat. The distress response system is activated quickly and often consistently. The body courses with adrenaline and cortisol to ensure the child can try to fight back or run away to safety. Often, neither of these options is available to the child. With a body full of stress chemicals, the child shuts down, dissociates and goes into a freeze response.
Living this way for a long time has a big impact on the body as well as the psyche. The stress chemical overload impacts immune and digestive system functioning. It also affects the body’s inflammatory environment and may contribute to a range of psychosomatic symptoms. Latent illnesses can be triggered into expression by this kind of chronic stress and trauma. The often-unacknowledged sense that threat is ever-present continues throughout adult life, even once we are in apparently safe environments.