Healing Adverse Childhood Experiences with Niki Gratrix

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In this episode of The Dr. Hedberg Show, I interview Niki Gratrix in a discussion about adverse childhood experiences, overcoming trauma, PTSD, EMDR, somatic experiencing, relational trauma, anxiety, depression, emotional freedom technique, ADHD, chronic fatigue, and psychedelics.  Niki speaks with great passion about her work which is why I wanted to interview her.

Dr. Hedberg: Well, welcome everyone to the Dr. Hedberg show, this is Dr. Hedberg. I’m very excited today to have Niki Gratrix on the show. I heard her on the 15-Minute Matrix with Andrea Nakayama and just really enjoyed that interview. So, I wanted to have her around today. So, Niki, she’s actually an award-winning nutritional therapist, bioenergetic practitioner, and transformational coach. She helps people to optimize energy. And in 2005, she co-founded one of the largest mind-body clinics in integrative medicine in the UK. The results with patients at the clinic were published as a preliminary study in 2012 in the British Medical Journal open. In August 2015, she hosted the largest ever online health summit on overcoming fatigue, interviewing 29 world leading experts on optimizing energy with over 30,000 attendees. So, Niki, welcome to the show.

Healing Adverse Childhood Experiences with Niki Gratrix

Niki: Thank you so much for having me. It’s awesome to be here.

Dr. Hedberg: Great. So a lot of my listeners are familiar with the material I’ve been putting out on average childhood experiences, but why don’t we just lay some bedrock for that? Can you give us just an overview of what adverse childhood experiences are?

Niki: Yes. So, it’s very interesting. It’s based on a lot of data that’s been done actually. It’s been a lot of mainstream research that should get more attention in my view. So there were some big studies done by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente, looking at what they were calling adverse childhood events, and they called them ACEs. And they were looking at if you had a high level of ACEs, the sort of correlation with illness in adulthood. The sort of things they were looking at were sort of parents separating, divorce, that would count as an ACE, things like physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, physical or emotional neglect, domestic violence, mental illness in the family, substance abuse, or things like incarceration of a family member. So those were the particular categories that were chosen by the researchers that were working on this. It’s about the mid 1990s, they started that work. And it’s important work because it really… I’m sure you’ve covered some of the data, it never does any harm just to mention, you know, if you had a high level of ACEs, you have an increased risk of 7 out of the top 10 causes of death, 67% of all the people in these studies. And it was a huge study, they were like…it was almost seventeen and a half thousand people in the study. Sixty seven percent had said, “Look, we had exposure to some degree of this.” And that was probably an underestimate, which we can talk more about why that is. I got into this topic because things like chronic fatigue, you have a six-fold increased risk of chronic fatigue in adulthood if you had ACE’s in childhood. So I called fatigue and the kind of fibromyalgia and those kinds of related illnesses, I like the poster children for adversity and childhood. You know, and if you have six ACEs, you have a 20-year reduction in lifespan. So you that gives people a bit of an idea about why we’re talking about it and the types of things we’re talking about.

Dr. Hedberg: Yeah, it’s a big issue. And in my 15 years of functional medicine practice, I do admit that it’s something that I overlooked, you know, early on for many years, just no one was really familiar with it or talking about it. So one thing I wanted to ask, you had mentioned… So one of the questions on the ACE questionnaire I’m having difficulty getting a good answer on this, so maybe, you know, but, how come an ACE is if your parents get a divorce, but death of a parent is not considered an ACE or is it? Can you elaborate on that?

Niki: Yeah, so this is an area where the researchers, you know, they didn’t come out with an exhaustive list, they weren’t expecting the results that they got. And they really just chose 10 categories a bit arbitrarily to kind of, you know, start…they had data already on those areas. And so they just picked 10 areas, and they held their hands up afterwards and said, “Listen, we missed a lot of different ACEs.” And this is why I said there was also an underestimate in that 67%. So they missed out by being a victim of bullying, for example, and definitely death of a parent would count for sure. So, yeah, there were lots of things. And, you know, they didn’t mention this is the whole topic we could touch on, but an intergenerationally inherited trauma. So when they were asking people, you know, “Did you have any ACEs?” You might say no in your childhood, not realizing you’ve actually inherited the psychological and physiological expression of trauma because your parent or grandparent actually experienced the trauma. And we know that because of the survivors of the Holocaust victims, and there’s been a lot of research done in around the world, whether it’s been famine or genocide, and so on. The third generation survivors of their grandparents who were in the trauma have the same physiological and psychological expression. So that’s another area that people can underestimate as well. Yeah, so it’s a big area.

Dr. Hedberg: Yeah, so I just count that…I’ve been counting that as an ACE if they had a death of a parent because to me, I mean, at least from my understanding that when your parents divorce, that’s obviously very traumatic, but I would think death would supersede that. So what about the…? So let’s say someone knows they have at least any score of one or higher, how do these ACEs actually affect health?

Niki: Yes, what are the mechanisms? So again, they did research looking at the impact of early life stress on the biology and they started with actually looking at rats, and things like this, and they literally found that there’s a neuroendocrine-immune system reset. There’s a shift that happens in the epigenetic expression of your sensitivity to stressful events that happen, really from the date that the trauma started. And remember, we need to talk more about this, but we are not talking about necessarily, at all, a one-off event. That can definitely be… A one-off event can definitely cause that neuroendocrine-immune system reset. It’s also more of the chronic, just lack of emotional connection will create biological changes in the baby. So we have these things called mirror neurons, where a baby will actually learn to feel empathy because mom can feel empathy. So the baby actually develops these mirror neurons, so she or he is reflecting what’s being expressed to the baby from the mother. Mirror neuron is another fascinating area of how, again, social relations, OP, other people, how they affect us. And the brain does not develop in isolation, it develops in response to our social interactions, our social environment. And the interesting thing about trauma is, most trauma is relational. It comes from other people. The very rare form of trauma is what we always kind of assume when we say the word trauma, people think of maybe a car accident or a natural disaster, or maybe hospitalization as a young child for some kind of procedure. Now, definitely those things are all traumatic, they’re just relatively rare. Most trauma comes from a child’s attachment relations, usually, that’s the parents, or its key caregivers, or authority figures, and so on.

So in response to what’s happening in this social interaction, it’s not only this biochemical change, usually, it essentially is upregulating the stress response system. Most people know that stress is bad for you, that stress kills, but really the ACEs study shows that, you know, the developing brain is particularly vulnerable. The developing brain is below age 18. So the brain is still highly imprintable. The neurons are literally there to respond to external stimuli. So as an event that could happen as an adult will just become a state, it might lead to PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is a stress response to that specific event, or anything that triggers, or reminds you of that event. The issue with a developing brain is that the states, really that should stay as states become traits, they become part of the personality type. So we’ve got this multifactorial impact. We’ve got this neuroendocrine-immune system reset where our system is in a state of stress, it’s reset from the date the trauma starts to happen. Our biology and neurology changes as well. And also, very importantly, we won’t forget this, the identity of the child changes. So this is where we call, like, sort of survival adaption mechanisms kick in. So when a child, for example, doesn’t get emotional bonding from the parents… And by the way, the statistics on that are incredible. I think it’s only 55% of babies securely attached with mother. So this was done in a strange situation study, the 6,000 mother-baby interactions were observed, and only about 55% will securely attach, the other sort of 45% are split between insecure attachment, which is, where there’s a lot of anxiety from the baby, and they find it very hard to calm themselves, so they lose the ability to self-soothe.

And the other group is they actually shut down from the emotional connection, like mom leaves the room, the baby doesn’t really care, mom comes back in the room, baby doesn’t respond, and that’s more reflective of being rejected by the mother, which is very sad. So these kinds of attachment issues, it causes, not only social interaction problems, but it causes a sense of isolation and alienation in the child, they’re not building up a sense of ability to self-soothe in safety, the expression of the glucocorticoid receptors reflect that. Really the key thing is, you know, the body and the mind are one thing. So what’s going on socially is just mirrored by the biology which is why it starts to… You know, I say, with the developing brain, like states become traits, which become your biological fate. That’s really what we’re talking about with what we call relational developmental trauma. And that’s not the same as PTSD. And it’s the other reason why that ACEs study was really an underestimate because it’s very hard. Let’s say there was emotional neglect that happened, so in other words, that’s not what happened in childhood, it’s what didn’t happen. It’s the connections that weren’t there. It’s the encouragement, the seeing of the child, making them feel loved, seen, encouraged, and understood, even that is traumatic for the child. And there are thousands of people out there who don’t realize they’ve experienced emotional neglect, for example. They know something’s wrong, but it’s very hard on a very superficial ACEs study. Those questions in the ACEs study….Look it was a great study. It was an amazing study. It was a landmark study, but it was really too superficial to elicit relational trauma because how can a child, you know, below age 10, self-report in adulthood that they had emotional neglect? And I would just say this, I believe we are in an epidemic of emotional dumbness. We live in an emotional…sort of a dumb society. We are not emotionally intelligent. We don’t know what to do with emotions even if we know what we’re feeling. We don’t know how to respond to them. Actually, I would say that it’s much more prevalent epidemic, and damaging to health than the standard American diet. It’s that prolific and it’s that much of an area that we need to bring attention to.

Dr. Hedberg: And that’s why I’m trying to get the word out as best as I can because, you know, you brought up some really interesting points and some things that I just want to buttress with what you were talking about. And the first is, you know, you help differentiate the single traumas, you know, like a rape or a car accident from the ongoing trauma of, you know, a parent who’s disconnected from their kid. And I think the difficult part for a lot of people is that you just sort of become accustomed to yourself and who you are, and you’re unaware of how these childhood experiences have changed you, and as an adult, it’s just very hard to notice these subtle undertones of who you are and why you act the way you do, and why you respond to other people and stress the way you do. You just think that that’s who you are, and then you just sort of think that that’s how other people are as well. So how do you tap into that, into the people who are skeptical or who are just…they’re dissociated from their own emotions and how they feel about themselves?

Niki: Yeah, it’s a really important point. So it’s a journey of awakening, it really is. There has to be a cognitive sort of, you know, start to read and learn, and do things like listen to podcasts like this. And then some of the deeper work starts… I happen to work with the Enneagram, which is a personality typing system, and it’s one of the few which really gets to childhood experience, and assesses that, and kind of demonstrates how… See what happens is, when we’ve had these sort of neglectful experiences, we don’t realize, like you said, we’re actually in a survival pattern, and we don’t know anything else. We don’t know any other way, that’s the way it went. So one of the things I encourage people to do is to start… There’s a brilliant book about emotional neglect by Dr. Jonice Webb, called, “Running on Empty,” and that’s a good place to start for emotional neglect, where she’ll go through…. And as soon as you start reading the stories and…some things are going to start resonating with you. You go, “Oh my goodness. That’s exactly what my family upbringing was like. That’s how I felt. Oh, my goodness, I didn’t realize that’s a pattern I’m running.” And then you start to build the awareness. The Enneagram is another way of doing that. So I won’t go into detail, but you can tell just by the names. I’ll just share some of the types. There’s nine different personality types in the Enneagram. There’s the achiever Type 3, there’s the giver, she’s the Type 2, there’s the Type 1, perfectionist. And I talk about four of them a lot because they’re most likely to get stress-related conditions. Type 6 is the loyalist, also known as the anxiety type.

So if you just think about the titles of those, these are adaption strategies of when we didn’t get love, essentially when we don’t get this unconditional expression that we get those mirror neurons going on, that basically, we know that we’re just, basically, okay. Most of us don’t get that message, and then we’re in doing something to have to earn that. So we could become super achievers, we become overgivers to others because that’s how we’ve learned to get love, we thought we had to give it away or we think we have to do everything perfectly, and then we’ll get love. Or we’ll worry about everything and think there’s no support in the world, there’s nobody there to support us. So it’s this process of becoming, first of all, aware about… You can look at external behaviors, often it starts there and, frankly, it’s so many of my clients in the kind of fatigue burnout side of things. It’s not just that, it’s the female dominant illnesses like autoimmunity as well, where you start putting the mirror and showing people even in behavioral ways, where they’re not doing self-care. Underneath all that, there’s an addiction to things like overworking, overgiving. And if somebody’s got health condition, that should be a red flag for, “You might want to look into, have I got certain adaption styles that have actually come from the fact that, you know, there were some deficiencies in childhood?” It’s not our parents’ fault. Our parents did the best that they could and they had parents who were like them, you know, that’s how they learned to do it. So this is why I was mentioning about the intergenerational aspect. So it is this processes of awareness. And you mentioned about disassociation, you know, things like that’s very important, the specific things you can do just to get more connected to your emotions.

So for some people who’ve actually disassociated into the mind, that’s very, very common. Where we go into the mind and the intellect, and it’s the way out, it was our escape mechanism. A lot of us do that because these were painful. Like, coming into the world and feeling like you didn’t belong, having feelings of shame, or isolation, alienation, which is really, I call that self-love deficit. It’s feelings of unworthiness, that really is at the core of whatever type of trauma happened, there’s that piece there. And it’s epidemic levels. And we know that from huge studies in loneliness, for example, that that is also shortening our lifespan from a physiological perspective as well. So starting to become aware of that, of feelings, and become connected to emotions. A lot of it is yoga practice is really important to connect to ground into the physical body to start feeling again. If you’re somebody who’s very intellectual, breathing exercises are very important, also mindfulness exercises, so that you just start to check in more through the day and ask yourself, “How are you feeling in this moment?” And you might notice how many times do we ask that in childhood. How many times did an adult ask you? Not, what are you doing? Have you done this? Go and…don’t do this, get that. “How are you feeling?” You know, so you have… This is part of the process of reparenting. So you need to take on that role, and there’s no one size fits all approach. So there’s some people, if they’re very in their head and very anxious, I actually won’t tell them to do things like meditation because they’ll probably just feel worse, and they won’t be able to do it. They might be better suited to doing bodywork, like yoga, and that can be massively transformative for them. So everybody’s different, that’s very important as well. It’s like functional medicine. It needs to be personalized.

Dr. Hedberg: I like that. So, “Running on Empty,” is one of the books that you recommend, and I also like, “Childhood Disrupted,” that’s another excellent one on the ACEs. Now, have you seen any…? I mean, I know there’s a lot on gender differences, but could you elaborate a little bit more on that? Are you seeing more women with more issues or are men just being overlooked? How do you see that?

Niki: So this is Dr. Bruce Perry’s work. He’s done some work on this. He is a psychiatrist and also a researcher, and it’s him that actually talked about like states become traits, and so on. And it’s definitely the case that boys and girls respond to emotional neglect and ACEs differently. Basically, if you’re female, you’re much more likely to get dissociative disorders and you basically discount your needs, and you just kind of…the best way of dealing with it is like not to have needs at all. So the child just disconnects from their own needs because nobody else has recognized them so they get suppressed. With boys, they’re much more likely to be much more overt and it’s things like ADD, ADHD, you know, oppositional defiant behaviors, they externalize more. So boys and girls definitely respond to the same trauma, with things like emotional neglect differently. It’s actually… Probably, it seems possibly more related also to the balance of power. So if there’s an overt abuser happening, the person, the authority, it tends to be more overt in their response back if they’re being traumatized. If you have less control and power, you tend to be more likely to disassociate, you can’t fight back, you’re gonna hit back on… You know, so you tend to disassociate, and that’s how you cope with it. So that’s very interesting. It’s a kind of important factor. You know, there’s the other side of this is that, some people will respond to emotional neglect more with this sort of narcissistic sociopathic response, and then they become abusers in adulthood and they do that to others. So the masculine will tend to be a bit more on the narcissistic sociopathic response and females will tend to be more stress-related disorders autoimmunity, fibromyalgia, that whole side of things. It’s interesting, I suspect that men who are more on the sociopathic narcissistic side, and women can totally be that way too, I should just say, they’re sort of less stressed. They have less anxiety because they’re disconnected from feelings, but they’re the type that’s more likely to drop dead from a heart attack, I hate to say it. So there are some definite differences in how people respond and the type of illnesses they get as well.

Dr. Hedberg: Yeah, I can’t let this conversation go without just asking you about social media and if there’s any interplay there because, obviously, a lot of young people now, a lot of their connection with other people is through social media. I know that has some differences in gender and how it affects boys and girls. Do you see social media compounding the problem in any way or how do you look at that whole…?

Niki: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s like the word compounding, that is what it’s doing. And the study is already coming out showing high levels of social media use… Also things like violent video games, all this, the media, in general, when it’s negative, it reduces people’s heart rate variability, so it’s creating stress, and it increases feelings of loneliness. And the studies are coming through for that already. So yeah, it’s a real compounding factor. So yeah, it’s actually one of my top tips is to minimize like media use, in general, so not only social media, but just screen time as well. So like, you know, being aware about, you know, are you connecting with yourself, never mind with other people. So, yeah, it’s another major factor. We live in a society that’s almost designed to not support self-love, and not support us feeling okay about ourselves, and feeling connected to ourselves. And part of this sort of the trauma, this disconnect we feel, when we have these feelings of shame, alienation, social isolation, those obviously, they are painful feelings. And what most people do, depending on the degree of how bad that feeling is, that is the source of the majority of addiction, whether that’s drugs, alcohol, abuse, the ACEs. If you have four ACEs, you’re eleven times more likely to use injection drugs, and you’re more than seven times as likely to be a binge drinker. So three times likely to be a binge drinker, more than seven times like to be an alcoholic, more than three times as likely to engage in risky sexual behavior. And all of that, it’s distracting. It’s anything to take away feeling the gut wrench that they’re actually…a person’s feeling inside. So those are all distractions and we’re all doing things to distract ourselves from uncomfortable feelings because we don’t know how to deal with emotions, or how to open up to ourselves. That’s what isn’t taught in the schools, so we’ll go off and we’ll become workaholics. We never spend time connected to ourselves, we’ll focus on helping everybody else, instead. We’ll do it with food, we’ll do it with alcohol, whatever it is that’s taking away the pain. So yeah, that was an important point to make as well because ACEs are probably the number one cause of all addiction as well.

Dr. Hedberg: Just talking to you about this, I’m just thinking about, if there are any potential cultural differences, anything that you’ve read or come across, and that I’m just thinking of certain cultures areas of the world where there’s still large communities of people living together very closely compared to cultures where say, in the west, where people are very isolated, a lot of single parenting, and things like that. Do you have anything to add to that question about culture?

Niki: Yes. It was a fact to remember in some of this research about what they’re calling the, “Blue Zones.” So the areas where people are living the longest and there’s longevity, and they’ve researched certain communities. I think one of the areas is in parts of Italy, parts of Japan. There are actually pockets all over the world, where there’s a lot of….they’re called centenarians, right? People who live over 100 years old. And there were certain factors they would find commonly in that group. And it wasn’t these strict dietary things that we often think, like that person…those people mustn’t be eating gluten, or they must never drink. No, they would have alcohol, they would be wine drinkers, but one of the factors which would show up every time was a strong sense of community, a lot of socializing, and a family connection, for sure. They also throw into that meaning and purpose, very important factors as well. These are probably some of the biggest factors for health. You know, everybody thinks it’s diet, it’s how much you exercise, whether you smoke, whether you drink, I would say, it’s probably how well socially connected you are to others. And if you feel social connection good with others, you usually feel good with yourself as well. It’s not really possible if you don’t feel at home in yourself to have that with another person. So yeah, so that’s very interesting.

So some of that data kind of bears it out. But of course, we’re kind of seeing, you know, this is sort of attack on the family, family values are all kind of being so unfortunate that that is on its way down, it seems at the moment. We seem to have an attack on certain family values happening right now. And yes, it’s only gonna make the socialization…..you know, these aspects worse, and it’s not only gonna affect people in terms of happiness and feelings of well being, it’s also gonna affect the health, and those two things go together. It’s why Professor Bessel van der Kolk, he is the world’s leading expert on trauma, his book, which I also recommend, is called, “The Body Keeps The Score.” “The Body Keeps The Score.” He’s basically saying the mind and body are one thing, and you might not remember that you had a trauma in childhood, you may not realize that you had, you know, emotional neglect, but your body does. Your body remembers everything, it’s mapped it, it’s right there, and it’s biologically changed in response to that trauma. And it’s why you might have health issues in adulthood that may have been a trigger, but ultimately, you could probably trace that to 20 years ago when the neuroendocrine-immune system reset and the stress response changed. So that’s another very good book that I also do recommend.

Dr. Hedberg: Yeah, “The Body Keeps the Score.” I’ve got it on my shelf, I haven’t gotten to it yet. But I’ve heard a lot of great things about it. And I’m glad you mentioned the mind-body thing there again, I actually don’t really like that term. I know a lot of people that don’t like it because when you say mind-body, it’s almost like saying that they are separate and as you said, they’re not separate at all, and then when you talk to people about these things, you know, some people think you’re telling them that it’s all in their head. We have to really drill this home, that there is no separation, everything that you think and you believe, and everything that you went through like you said, it’s going to affect everything. I mean, the other thing that I like that I’m glad you said was related to diet because there’s so much focus on that. But, you know, I had this patient years ago, he had inflammatory bowel disease, and he could hardly eat anything. But when he went to his grandmother’s house, who he was very close to growing up, you know, very, very deep connection, probably deeper than his own parents, he could eat her cooking, and it was gluten, and sugar, and dairy, you know, just all Southern home cooking, all the things that are considered today highly pro-inflammatory, that would set that off. But he could go to his grandmother’s house and be with her, and he could eat that food and have absolutely no issues at all. And then be in his own environment and be eating organic, you know, vegetables, and wild caught salmon, like, you know, all these so-called health foods, and have major reactions. So there’s such a strong connection there, and I think that people need to be more aware of these things, and how they are affecting their diet, and the supplements they take and things like that.

Niki: Absolutely. And it’s really the message is for people to… We really need to redefine what we mean by holistic health, like, holistic medicine because it’s kind of moved from conventional, like, where we just use drugs to suppress symptoms, right? The functional medicine is fantastic, it kind of, you know, went into systems biology, and we kind of got, “Oh, everything…” You know, we might have our hair falling out, but that could be a gut issue that’s affecting thyroid. So it’s kind of just connecting the dots, that there’s a systems approach, but it’s still very sort of biochemical biology focus still. What I encourage people to do is that if you have a chronic,…something happening with your health, to use the symptoms, to see them as messengers, to see them, perhaps as a call to transformation and to consider the journey to health isn’t just a physical journey, it’s equally an emotional journey. And so your journey to… Nothing’s more important than feeling good. You know, if you also want to look at that, how happy and satisfied are you in your life in general, so that’s part of the prescription for health. It’s not only, “How’s your diet? What’s your lifestyle? What time are you going to bed? How’s your circadian rhythm? Are you getting time in nature, you know, getting time in in the sunlight? Have you cut out the processed food?” Those things matter. They’re important, but you also do want to look at, “How happy am I with myself? How happy am I in my relationships? Am I living my heart’s desire? How close to am I on purpose? Do I have supportive healthy relations around me?” And that’s just as important. And this whole sort of body-mind, mind-body thing, which is one thing, there’s multiple ways those two things are interrelated. It’s not only, you know, emotions are biochemical that we feel differently because of hormones, but it’s also neurological, and it’s also energetic.

Emotions and thoughts aren’t nothing, they’re also energetic. So it’s important to kind of be multifactorial in your approach. So you consider… Actually, in the ideal world, you take this kind of, change the biochemistry, change the neurology, and change the energetic side as well, you know, things like the Emotional Freedom Technique. It’s interesting the frontline treatments, even for PTSD or energetic interventions, like EMDR which is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. You know, we’re actually getting into Chinese medicine here, it’s based on the meridian system. So it’s very interesting that all that’s coming through as well. And then we have this whole quantum physics side of this, I do touch on this as well. This mind-body thing, not only… The ACEs study shows unequivocally you can’t not consider, you know, the psychology, but this quantum physics has also proven that, you know, our intentions impact matter, and your intentions to heal your visualization, your positive mindset, positive optimistic expectations, that counts too. Look at the placebo effect versus a gigantic area, that area we could have gotten into, you know, one of the most science-backed areas, you know, in science because every randomized control trial has a placebo, right? So it’s important… Just, it’s a really big fact, so when you’ve sort of consider if you’ve got a health issue, be holistic, meaning consider all of that. And usually people, they touch on enough areas that eventually you’ll start to get that tipping point, and you’ll start to get improvement over time when you take this multifactorial approach.

Dr. Hedberg: Exactly. And so as far as..so somebody knows that they have an ACE of one or higher in childhood trauma, you’ve already mentioned a number of things for how to heal EMDR, I also like somatic experiencing, and neurofeedback, you know, can also be helpful. There’s a lot of different modalities out there that people can reach for. Is there anything else that you can think of that we haven’t mentioned that people should be thinking about if they wanna try and heal?

Niki: Yeah, so the first thing I would just say, if….There’s a difference between relational trauma and PTSD, as we mentioned. PTSD is usually in response to a single event, like you mentioned, it could have been a car accident, it could have been an assault, it could have been something that generally is a discrete event, that is… I’ve actually interviewed Professor Bessel van der Kolk, and he’s like, “Yeah, PTSD is pretty curable these days.” And he’s right. And the frontline treatments are things like EMDR, and it’s conventional intervention, there are people well trained in it because it’s within the conventional area. So if you have a PTSD type issue, go for EMDR, go for it. There are even other therapies within the conventional realm that work. “Somatic Experiencing,” in Dr. Peter Levine’s work is very good for PTSD as well, that type of trauma.

Relational trauma is different and you might have…usually, people will develop a little bit of PTSD symptoms to certain discrete events, it doesn’t have to be life-threatening. Because that’s the other thing is, you know, some people are more sensitive to all biological context than others. So what traumatizes one person won’t necessarily traumatize another, so that’s very important. The work of Dr. Elaine Aron was very interesting, “The Highly Sensitive Type,” she’s the one who discovered there are highly sensitive people. And then that got completely backed up by mainstream research as well. You know, you could be part of the 20% that are more sensitive to all biological context, which means other people, and chemicals, and food, and all of that. It’s another whole topic to talk about is genetically, there is some proof there. So basically, it’s helpful to identify. You can go to Elaine Aaron’s website and actually check in, are you a highly sensitive person. It’s knowing yourself and knowing what your needs are, and with relational trauma, you have the self-identification, things like looking into the Enneagram, it’s a really good book called, “The Wisdom of the Enneagram,” by Don Riso and Russ Hudson.

That type of work for relational trauma, it’s gonna be a mixture of doing some things that are more for PTSD because a lot of people have a little bit of that going on, and they have like the relational trauma symptoms. Relational trauma symptoms are more to do with like shame, just feeling alienation, trouble in attracting people in relations that tend to be selfish, or that we that we seem to be giving ourselves away all the time, we never have time for ourselves, that’s more of the relational trauma. It’s reparenting really needed with that, and it’s more with daily practice. And I would say probably, the things I would give to people as the takeaway, the thing that will have really get to the core of transforming relational trauma and it takes time to do it, it really is compassion, and it’s self-acceptance, radical self-acceptance. Starting to recognize that, “Oh, yes, I have these traits” or “Yeah, I have this low self-esteem. I have this big inner judge.” And starting to accept that that’s okay and still having 1,000% compassion for yourself. With all the stuff, the person you’ve become, it starts with acceptance. This is the start of self-love because what happens is you become more aware, and you start doing research, then you can start saying, “Oh my God, I’m really judgmental of myself.” And you start to notice that, and then you get judgmental about the fact that you see yourself being judgmental. So there’s like a spiral that starts. So somewhere you’ve got to break that. And you know, things like EFT, the Emotional Freedom Technique, that’s a very useful tool because it’s all about you accept everything. Even though I have this inner judge, I deeply and completely accept myself. And you literally have people do, like a process where they look at everything that they’re like… every time they’re catching themselves, negating themselves, discounting themselves, judging how they look, how they feel, how they’re aging, whether they’re too fat, too thin, not funny enough, not intellectual enough, this goes on and on and on.

It’s catching all of that and saying, “No, I am 1,000% supportive of myself. I’m 100% supportive of myself.” And it’s starting with affirmation, that kind of daily practice. And morning times are really important, like just doing… The gratitude journaling is also fantastic, appreciation work, meditation work, these all raise your heart rate variability. They make you feel better, and uplifting material, staying away from the negative violent stuff, the news. And you know, in the morning time, having a little routine, where you’ve got some affirmations that really resonate with you, you know, just do two or three things when you get up in the morning. It might be listening to something uplifting, maybe some meditation music, maybe three things you feel grateful for, write some affirmations that you feel that are positive for you, just three or four things, and do that every day, it’ll be life-changing. It will be absolutely life-changing with people. But it’s this daily reparenting in those ways. And the rest of it is just, it’s awareness. We’re becoming more aware about the ways that we don’t appreciate ourselves, or the ways that we discount our needs, or the way that we kind of are not supporting ourselves. And it is a process of awakening because you’ll start to do some of this and you’ll realize how much you don’t take care of yourself. And that’s the whole thing in itself to then come to terms with and go, “Oh, okay.” So that constant compassion is a huge part of it. And so the reparenting process, the acknowledgment, and the acceptance on a daily basis, it’s what heals relational trauma and self-love deficit at the end, but it’s a process. I hope that’s helpful.

Dr. Hedberg: Yeah, those are all excellent. I do recommend a number of those to patients, the journaling, gratitude, meditation, and things like that. So now I’ve been following the recent psychedelic research that has come out. I know there’s some work there on PTSD, and addiction, and things like that. Have you seen anything when you’re reading on psychedelics and what we’re talking about?

Niki: Yeah, I think that is the other gigantic kind of growth area. It’s probably at the leading edge of research in trauma, both PTSD and relational type trauma, developmental trauma. So they’re getting the data through saying it can pretty much heal PTSD. It was, again, Professor Bessel van der Kolk that I interviewed and he said, “Yeah, we’re looking at…” He was looking at Ecstasy like an NDA for that, and he was saying, “Yes, we’re definitely getting results with PTSD.” With relational trauma, he said there’s a question mark right now. I do think that it’s… I think these experiences like having a journey experience, whether that’s with mushrooms or, you know, in Alaska, it’s becoming more, more sort of well known now, not obviously legal here in the U.S., but there are places that you can go abroad. I should say, there’s a TED talk online. It was actually by a neuroscientist, and it’s called, “My Stroke of Insight,” it’s a 20-minute TED Talk. She’s a neuroscientist and she has a stroke, and she’s describing what’s happening. She had a stroke and she describes what happens. You can get a feel from what she says that was like, of what these kind of journeys, what can happen. Because what it does is, it takes out the analytical brain and all the resistance that we hold, and once you take that away, that’s what psychedelics do. And I recommend just listening to that 20-minute Ted TED talk, it’s extremely moving. And it’s the sort of things that you can experience, it’s getting that experience that you never experienced in childhood, you can access states of love that you may never have been exposed to before.

So in that sense, you’ll get a reference point. Now, that can be life-changing, just having a journey, like, where you just, you know, one evening you do a journey with sort of psychedelics, and you’ll have maybe a new reference point of a feeding experience that you’ve never had before. So that can be completely healing for some conditions. And for relational trauma, the thing is that, it’s kind of you experienced it once, and you’ll go back to your old patterns. What I’m finding is this, you might get some extraordinary information that you learn and access to new states that you never thought were possible, so it can be extremely useful. Now you’ve got, you know, you know there’s a path, you know the direction you’re at least meant to be going in, whereas before it was like completely lost. So I think those kind of experiences are very powerful, can be very healing. There’s still a lot more research to be done on those, but they’re looking very promising, so I do include that, you know, within getting it in the safe and legal way. Yes, it’s a cutting edge of research. But there’s still a one-off trip, you’ll need to still have these daily practices, and it’s why I talked about, it’s a lifestyle thing, it’s not something you just do once. If someone said to you like, “How long should I eat vegetables for, to be healthy?” Right? “For the rest of your life.” So that’s really what the relational, like staying in these well-being states, it’s a daily practice.

Dr. Hedberg: Yeah, and just so our listeners know if there is anyone who isn’t up on psychedelics, I just wanna let everyone know that there is research being done on those in places like Johns Hopkins, and NYU, and UCLA, so this isn’t some fringe area of science. It’s being done at well-respected scientific institutions. Now, why don’t we close by talking about resiliency? This is something that a lot of people will take the ACE test and then they’re like, “Oh, okay, so I’ve got this score,” and they think that they’re screwed, and then they don’t do the resiliency questionnaire to look at that because someone can have a high ACE score, but also be very resilient genetically, and for other reasons. So, can you talk about resiliency and give people some hope to close out the conversation?

Niki: Yes. So as you say, there is a genetic aspect to this. Okay, I’ll leave you with something very uplifting. So what they found, I mentioned this, this 20% or so, that are more the highly sensitive types, that are more impacted by all biological context. And what the researchers are calling children who are the highly sensitives, they’re calling them orchids. And they’re saying that, the most kids, the 80% who are a little bit more resilient, they’re calling them dandelions. So it’s actually in the research. So the dandelion kids, you know, you can pretty much throw the seeds of dandelions anywhere, you know, in very sparse uncaring environments, and they’ll pretty much thrive anywhere. With orchids, if they don’t get greenhouse care, they will feel the impact of that much more, and they’re much more likely to have disassociative disorders, or to go and develop ADHD, you know, depending if it’s a male or female. Now the amazing thing about orchids is they actually… And people who know as I’m talking about this, they know that they have the gift of sensitivity, and it is a gift because when children who are orchids get greenhouse care, they outperform the dandelions and become some the most successful people in society. So and this was empirically proven with hundreds of families that were observed, that they picked out the kind of kids that were having trouble with difficult children. They gave them the greenhouse care and then they compared who had the gene alleles for dandelions, and who had the gene alleles for the orchids, and orchids flew past the dandelion counterparts when they got extra care. So it was empirically, this is in the science data, it was proven. This is why it’s important to understand your own make and model, are you more of an orchid type?

So it means that just your knowing that stuff is a good thing because it means you can optimize your environment to meet your genetic potential. It’s not a scary thing, it’s an opportunity to know that I am a highly sensitive type, I have this special gift. Highly sensitive types tend to be much more aware about their environment, they have empathic gifts with others, they notice much more than the dandelion children, so they’ve got kind of superpowers. But you need this extra care, you probably need a bit more time alone, you want less toxicity in your environment, emotional and physiological. So there’s plenty of research I recommend Elaine Aron’s book actually. Also Dr. Judith Orloff. I think she used to be the Associate Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA. She’s written plenty of books about sort of empaths and highly sensitive types, about guidance on how to look after yourself a little bit differently than maybe the other people who are even siblings because they’re not highly sensitive types. Some of that plays into the resilience aspect, so if you’re a dandelion great, and if you’re an orchid, then just know that, you know, you’re more of the Ferrari type than a Land Rover, and you just don’t wanna drive too much off-road. And you’ll meet your sort of, you know, ideal.

And the last piece I’ll just leave with this is, you know, resilience, it’s great and we can learn to sort of build more resilience, really the self-compassion and self-love. When you start to build that and you don’t feel that there’s something inherently wrong with you, then you get more resilient to life, the knockbacks don’t drown you, you know, the rejections, you survive through them. But, you know, even when something big does happen, and we’re brought to our knees by it, and it is just very traumatic and sometimes that’s part of life, it can be an enormous source of growth. And so there’s something called post-traumatic growth, not the same as resilience. Resilience means something happens and it bounces off you.

Most of us are gonna have something that’s gonna bring us to our knees. What we want to then have, I mean, it’s gonna just challenge everything or just bring us to, “I don’t know how to deal with this. I’m on my knees.” What those kind of events tend to do, is they can trigger post-traumatic growth, where you will literally become a new person through it. So even if you, you know, don’t have this resilience piece, maybe you weren’t meant to. Perhaps, sometimes we need to go through things that cause us a tremendous amount of growth, personally, professionally, emotionally. And it’s a crazy thing to say, but you’ll have these people who’ll say, you know, some of the worst things that happen to them are the best things that ever happened to them, and they wouldn’t trade that in for the world. So, and this is only people with….. Matthew Sanford is an amazing inspiration, the paraplegic yogi. So he teaches yoga, and he had a terrible accident and you know, became paraplegic, and he talks about his journey in his book, and I recommend that to consider as well.

So there’s always hope, always. It’s possible, whether you’re the highly sensitive type, you just feel like the whole world is overwhelming or something’s happened, and it has brought you to your knees, there’s always hope. So yeah, I would encourage people to look into Matthew Sanford’s work. And think about people like Oprah Winfrey, as well, you know, terrible childhood, raped by more than one person in childhood, went through some really bad times, and she’s just another person who’s inspirational, reminder that we’re not just victims. You know, we may have experienced something, but the idea is we can release that, and we can overcome our wounds, and we can become whole again. So that’s it.

Dr. Hedberg: That’s all really excellent, yeah. I think people are really going to feel how passionate you are about this through your voice, you can really tell how much this means to you. So that’s why I wanted to have you on because I could feel that when I listened to the previous interview that you did. So thank you for coming on, Niki, I appreciate it.

Niki: Thank you so much for having me and giving airtime to such an important topic, so thank you for the work that you’re doing as well.

Dr. Hedberg: And where would you like people to find you online? Do you have a website and other places you’d like people to know about?

Niki: Yep, they can come and check out my website which is nikigratrix.com, that’s N-I-K-I-G-R-A-T-R-I-X.com. And yeah, I do one-to-one consultations, actually, not for much longer because I’m launching an online course so optimizing energy. And I’m actually gonna have modules in there that deal with the social trauma aspects and mindset, and the whole thing. And probably later in the year also launching a podcast. So there is a free eBook you get on my website called, “The 7 Steps to Healing Childhood Emotional Trauma,” which is completely free on the website if people want to stay in touch with my work.

Dr. Hedberg: Fantastic. So for all the listeners, go to drhedberg.com, and I’ll have a transcript of our talk today if you wanna check that out, and also have links to everything that Niki mentions, so you can connect with her if you like. So take care everyone. Thanks for tuning in and I will talk to you next time.

"I never thought I could feel 'normal' again but I did – thanks to Dr. Hedberg!"

by - Gloria

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