How to Heal Adverse Childhood Experiences

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If you’re reading this then you’ve probably taken the ACE Survey but if you haven’t then you can download it here. If you even just scored a 1 on the ACE Survey then this article is definitely for you. The higher your ACE score the more likely you are to have health problems as an adult due to what you went through as a child. Additionally, if you feel like you’ve been doing everything right with your diet, exercise, sleep, managing stress levels etc. but you just can’t get well, then you probably haven’t addressed your ACE’s.  This article will give you the tools you need and cover how to heal adverse childhood experiences.

How to Heal Adverse Childhood Experiences

In a previous article I discussed the connection between ACE’s and autoimmune disease, more specifically Hashimoto’s disease where I cover some of the best research on ACE’s. This article will focus on all the things you can do to overcome your ACE’s and start feeling the best you’ve ever felt. Let’s jump right in and cover all the different therapies you can do.

A large portion of the recommendations and quotes below come from the book, “Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal” by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. I highly recommend you read this book if you have an ACE score of 1 or more.

Somatic Experiencing

Somatic Experiencing was started by Dr. Peter Levine to help people overcome trauma. According to Dr. Levine, humans have difficulty recovering from trauma compared to animals because our traumas are stored in the brain and nervous system. Animals can easily shake off their trauma but humans get stuck in a trauma loop and dissociated for their bodies.

Somatic Experiencing helps you slowly reintegrate with your body without having to relive your trauma. Specific exercises are recommended by skilled therapists to get in touch with your body again which eventually lets the trauma go.

I have personally done Somatic Experiencing for my own trauma and it has been extremely useful in my healing journey. I’m more in touch now with my feelings and my body and things that used to bother me don’t get to me anymore. Somatic Experiencing is one of the most common therapies I recommend to my patients who are trying to get well.

You can find a practitioner on Dr. Levine’s website the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute at https://traumahealing.org/.

EMDR

EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing helps you overcome trauma by thinking about negative memories while rapidly moving your eyes back and forth similar to REM sleep. This is done staring at a device with lights that rapidly move back and forth while holding a device in each hand that vibrates.

Research has found that doing this will result in the dissipation of emotions and stress reactions that are associated with these memories. I have done EMDR before and I found it very useful and helpful for overcoming trauma. As with any therapy, the key is finding a skilled therapist in EMDR.

Just like meditation, EMDR has been shown to decrease the firing of the amygdala and increase the size of the hippocampus. EMDR is one of my top choices for healing childhood trauma.

Psychotherapy

Traditional psychotherapy is always a great place to start when you’re trying to heal. There is nothing better than a third-party objective view of your life and your feelings. Many people make the mistake of using a priest, friend or family member as the person they talk to. There is no substitute for a mental health professional trained in psychotherapy who can give you the best treatment.

Unfortunately, our society still views seeing a therapist as a weakness and it certainly isn’t given the funding or attention it deserves. I hope that in the future, everyone works with a mental health professional even when they are feeling well. Your mental health is the bedrock of everything about you and how you feel so it must be the number one priority for everyone.

Sometimes you need to have a few sessions with various therapists to find the right fit for you. Once you find the right fit, you’ll have a solid person to give you lots of support and guidance in your life. I have more respect for mental health professionals than any other branch of healthcare because I know the service they provide is more important and more beneficial than any other form of treatment.

Neurofeedback

Neurofeedback, or Electroencephalographic (EEG) Neurofeedback has been shown to improve brain function. Ruth Lanius, MD, PhD, is the director of the post-traumatic stress disorder research unit at the University of Western Ontario in Canada and she states, “Neurofeedback can help to bring some of the brain networks that are interrupted by trauma back online.”

The simplest way to think about neurofeedback is to view the brain as a symphony orchestra and when someone is traumatized, one or more sections of the orchestra are no longer playing or playing out of sync with the rest of the instruments. Neurofeedback brings the abnormal instruments back into harmony with the rest of the orchestra.

Neurofeedback is readily available but make sure the practitioner has experience in dealing with trauma and PTSD.

Mindfulness Meditation

Did you know that brain scans of individuals who experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences have smaller areas of the brain that process inflammation, loving relationships, and how we deal with stress? That means more inflammation, more difficult relationships, and greater difficulty handling stress.

This means that we really struggle in relationships which further drives inflammation, stress, and health problems, especially if your are a woman. The good news is that mindfulness meditation, or mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) can change our brains back to normal.

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to change the brain which reduces inflammation and improves how we respond to stress. In fact, those who meditate recover from stress much more quickly than those who don’t. This means that when you get a spike in cortisol when you’re under stress, you’re cortisol levels will come down much more quickly than those who don’t meditate.

Research has also shown meditation to be helpful for the following:

Research has even shown that meditation increases the density of gray matter in the hippocampus which is important for memory, stress regulation, and emotion processing.

Meditation also helps reduce fearfulness while improving empathy, self-reflection, and self-awareness. I have written an article previously on meditation which has all of my recommended apps for meditation. You can use an app or go to a class to learn how to meditate.

If you really have difficulty with meditation, you may do better with Guided Imagery. Guided Imagery has been known as the “lazy person’s meditation” because a practitioner or audio track guides you through the process. This involves picturing something in particular and picturing everything that is happening in your imagination through a story or process. The practitioner will give you something to picture in your mind followed by instructions on what to see and what to think about. You simply sit or lie with your eyes closed deep in your imagination. I highly recommend it if meditation just doesn’t feel right for you.

Loving-kindness Meditation

Loving-kindness meditation or “metta” is a powerful way to heal past and present relationships that are troubling you. This meditation is done by giving compassion to yourself and then to others. Forgiveness can be extremely difficult for those who have hurt you but forgiving yourself may be even more difficult.

Personally, I’ve always been extremely hard on myself. Much harder than I would ever be on someone else. Some of us would never treat another person with the same harsh self-talk that we give to ourselves. This is where loving-kindness meditation can help.

Begin in a place and position like you would normally be in to meditate and focus on your breath for a few minutes. Bring forth an image of yourself and say the following out loud:

May I be filled with love and kindness.

May I be safe and protected.

May I love and be loved.

May I be happy and contented.

May I be healthy and strong.

May my life unfold with ease.

Make sure you really mean each phrase as you say it to yourself. Next, think about someone who is close to you and say these phrases:

May you be filled with love and kindness.

May you be safe and protected.

May you love and be loved.

May you be happy and contented.

May you be healthy and strong.

May your life unfold with ease.

Now think about someone you don’t know so well such as a co-worker, hairdresser, mailman etc. and speak the phrases above to them.

Next, think of someone who has caused you some pain in your relationship with them. Not someone who has traumatized you however as this would be too much. This could be a close friend, family member, or loved one and go through the phrases again as noted above.

Finally, speak the following phrases to all human beings and animals if you’re an animal lover like me:

May all beings be filled with love and kindness.

May all beings be safe and protected.

May all beings love and be loved.

May all beings be happy and contented.

May all beings be healthy and strong.

May all being’s lives unfold with ease.

Take a few moments when you’re done with some deep breathing and appreciate the new sense of calm you have before opening your eyes.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness ties in with loving-kindness meditation but you can do something even more specific for individuals who have hurt you. Forgiveness is extremely difficult but you don’t have to completely let go of what happened to you. It’s important to still recognize that what happened to you was horrible and that the person who did what they did to you was wrong. But you don’t have to let that define who you are now.

This forgiveness exercise by James Gordon, MD who founded the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C. can really help you heal.

Sit comfortably as you would during meditation and get into a calm and relaxed state with your eyes closed. Now imagine someone who you feel resentment or anger towards. See this person in your mind sitting across from you. Don’t start this exercise with someone who has traumatized you the most, however.

Look at this person and say, “I forgive you. For whatever you may have done to harm me, intentional or unintentional, I forgive you.” Allow yourself to soften toward this person and imagine him/her coming into your heart. Breathe them in and continue breathing in and out being present with this person and extend forgiveness for a minute or two. Then let this person go saying, “I forgive you.” Continue breathing for a few minutes.

Next, move on to asking someone else for forgiveness who you have hurt. Look at this person and say, “Forgive me for whatever I may have done to harm you, intentionally or unintentionally; forgive me.” Hold this person in your heart for a few minutes feeling forgiveness coming from them to you. Finally, let this person go thanking him/her for the forgiveness he/she is offering you.

Continue breathing for a few minutes and now it’s time to forgive yourself so imagine you are sitting across from yourself. Look at yourself and say, “I forgive you for whatever you feel you’ve done to hurt yourself; for however you’ve let yourself down, I forgive you.” Feel the connection between you and yourself for a few minutes breathing deeply.

And finally, in a similar fashion to loving-kindness, forgive all beings on the planet. Say to yourself and everyone who needs forgiveness, “I forgive you.” Breathe in and out with an awareness of your entire body and then open your eyes when you’re ready.

You may notice some powerful emotions emerging while you do this and some tears may even have started to flow. Some people will feel much lighter and like a great weight has been lifted off their shoulders. Practice this forgiveness exercise regularly until you feel like you’ve truly forgiven everyone who has hurt you as well as yourself. This takes time but the benefits are dramatic.

Tai Chi and Qigong

Tai Chi and Qigong are basically moving meditation. These slow and gentle movements put you into a meditative state for healing. Most often classes are done outside which is a big plus because it gets you out of the house and away from your technical devices. Anything you can do in nature will help your immune system and stress hormones. Most yoga studios offer classes or just do an internet search for classes in your area.

Those of you who have difficulty meditating or sitting still, Tai Chi and Qigong may be perfect for you.

Yoga

Did you know that brain scans after doing yoga reveal decreased blood flow to the alarm center of the brain known as the amygdala? Not only that, but blood flow increases to the frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex which are important for emotionally stability and making rational choices. Yoga also increases the neurochemical GABA which has a calming effect on the brain and nervous system.

Some people are depleted of GABA due to chronic stress which leads to muscle tension, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Yoga can help you improve your GABA levels and brain function for a more balanced mood.

Yoga classes are also a great way to have some social interaction or sense of community. I have gotten to know my yoga teacher and many of the regulars at the classes I go to. I always feel great, supported, and more centered after I go to yoga class. These types of meaningful interactions help to increase the brain chemical oxytocin which lower inflammation.

Yoga can also help you tap into the psoas muscle which is deep in the lower abdomen, hips, and lower back. This muscle is known as the “fight-or-flight muscle” which contracts when you are under stress. Deep stretching of this muscle helps to unlock the lower back, abdominal organs, pelvis and hips for a greater sense of ease when you move. Sitting for long periods causes shortening of this muscle which can exacerbate it’s tightness.

Bodywork

Human touch is a powerful healing modality for those trying to heal their ACE’s. Massage therapy has been shown to lower cortisol levels and improve healthy neurotransmitter levels like serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and adrenaline.

Many people aren’t getting enough human touch because they are single or in a relationship that no longer involves much intimacy. There are many different types of bodywork to choose from and they’re all equal in how they effect the body. As long as you are being touched in a relaxing and safe environment with a skilled bodyworker, you’ll yield all the benefits you’re looking for.

I like to mix my bodywork with a combination of Swedish massage, deep tissue, and Thai massage. Try and get at least one massage in every month with a therapist you like and trust.

Write to Heal

“Writing to Heal” is an exercise often used by Bernie Siegel, MD to help you experience who you really are for the first time in your life. And James Pennebaker, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin has studied this method extensively. He recommends doing the following, “Over the next four days, write down your deepest emotions and thoughts about the emotional upheaval that has been influencing your life the most. In your writing, really let go and explore the event and how it has affected you. You might tie this experience to your childhood, your relationship with your parents, people you have loved or love now, or even your career. Write continuously for twenty minutes a day.”

Dr. Pennebaker has found that this simple short-term writing exercise can improve learning, improve immune system function, and fewer doctor visits. And researchers at Carnegie Mellon found that writing like this decreased heart rate responses to stress and improved cardiovascular responses.

Remember that your immune system is the master operating system of your body and simply writing down your feelings about your childhood and your stressors as an adult will improve immune system balance.

Art Therapy

Bernie Siegel, MD also likes to use drawing to heal old wounds. Dr. Siegel says to draw anything that comes to mind and he states, “You might choose to draw an outdoor scene, or a picture of your family. See what images come up. Then put your drawing away and look at it the next day to analyze it; think of it as if you were interpreting a dream. Does it give you any insights?”

Many of our traumas reside in the subconscious mind but they continually disrupt our beliefs, thoughts, and emotions. Drawing can help unmask these issues and give us better insights into our health. All you need is a piece of paper and something to draw with.

Hypnosis

Hypnosis is a tried and tested form of therapy that can work well for some individuals. The key is finding a skilled and experienced hypnotist who you trust. I personally had a horrible experience with a hypnotist who overstepped his expertise. This is fairly uncommon however so make sure it is someone with proper credentials and references.

Hypnosis taps into the subconscious mind where most of our brain processes are actually taking place. A skilled hypnotist can take you places that have been repressed giving you new insight into your life and set you on a path for healing. Hypnosis is well-researched and highly effective for overcoming trauma so don’t hesitate to give it a try if there is someone well-respected in your area.

Heal Your Gut!

Did you know that 90% of the cells in your body aren’t human cells? We’re actually only 10% human and 90% microbe. These microbes regulate our immune system, nervous system, and our mood. The gut-brain axis is so intimate that it can’t be discussed in isolation from each other and it is why the gut is considered “the second brain.” All of the neurotransmitters in the brain are also found in the gut including GABA and 95% of the serotonin in the body is made in the gut.

If you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, insomnia, brain fog, poor memory, or mood swings, you should have a thorough evaluation of your gut health. 70% of your immune system is in the gut and remember that your immune system is the master operating system of your body.

Your mood effects how the bacteria in your gut behave and also how diverse they are. The longer you are under stress, the more likely your gut bacteria are to change their behavior which can negatively effect how you feel. These bacteria also communicate directly with the vagus nerve which is a major part of your parasympathetic nervous system which is the “rest and digest” part of the autonomic nervous system.

I order a stool analysis on virtually every patient I work with so we can see what’s going on inside this vital organ. Parasites, yeast overgrowth, bacterial dysbiosis, viruses, inflammation, malabsorption, digestion, and immune function are all tested in a good stool analysis. Often times the gut is a vital key to unlocking a healing response in many people.

Resilience Survey

Finally, be sure to take the following resilience survey. Some people have a high ACE score but also have high resiliency. These are the people you know who have overcome what may seem to be insurmountable obstacles in life but still turn out to be healthy and productive human beings. Don’t be discouraged if your ACE score is high and your resiliency is low. This just means you’ll have to work a little bit harder to get well but it can be done!

Please circle the most accurate answer under each statement:

1. I believe that my mother loved me when I was little.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

2. I believe that my father loved me when I was little.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

3. When I was little, other people helped my mother and father take care of me and they seemed to love me.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

4. I’ve heard that when I was an infant someone in my family enjoyed playing with me, and I enjoyed it, too.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

5. When I was a child, there were relatives in my family who made me feel better if I was sad or worried.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

6. When I was a child, neighbors or my friends’ parents seemed to like me.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

7. When I was a child, teachers, coaches, youth leaders or ministers were there to help me.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

8. Someone in my family cared about how I was doing in school.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

9. My family, neighbors and friends talked often about making our lives better.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

10. We had rules in our house and were expected to keep them.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

11. When I felt really bad, I could almost always find someone I trusted to talk to.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

12. As a youth, people noticed that I was capable and could get things done.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

13. I was independent and a go-getter.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

14. I believed that life is what you make it.

Definitely true Probably true Not sure Probably Not True Definitely Not True

How many of these 14 protective factors did I have as a child and youth? (How many of the 14 were

circled “Definitely True” or “Probably True”?) _______

Of these circled, how many are still true for me? _______

So there you have it. I urge you to review all of the above healing options and get a feel for what may work best for you. It may take some time to figure out what really works for you. I have an ACE score of 5 so I have actually done every single recommendation above because that is what it took to get well.

No matter what your current situation, don’t give up and keep searching for the right help if you have to. It will all be worth it in the end.

"He not only understands the body more extensively than any other doctor I've seen (and I've seen a lot!), he also has the patience and skill to explain it all to his patient, answer questions, and listen. He is a wonderful doctor, all around, and I am so grateful I found him online and decided to try out my first "virtual doctor" experience with him!”

by - Andrea

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