The A.C.E. test (Adverse Childhood Experiences), has gained much attention from researchers, therapists and doctors alike. It is a profound research study involving over 17,000 medical patients who have experienced trauma in childhood, and the effects of that trauma on the body as they age. The outcome research finds that as the traumatized participants age, their bodies experience chronic illness and in some cases, a shorter life span. The events in the A.C.E. test all involve disrupted attachment with a significant caregiver in childhood.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris recently posted a video of the A.C.E where she explains that the repeated stress of abuse, neglect and parents struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues has real, tangible effects on the development of the brain. This unfolds across a lifetime, to the point where those who have experienced high levels of trauma are at triple the risk for heart disease and lung cancer. An impassioned plea for pediatric medicine to confront the prevention and treatment of trauma, head-on.
When adult couples argue, they set off a cascade of chemicals in their brains and bodies that literally hijacks the body, as noted in this article entitled ‘What happens to your body when you are fighting with your significant other’. If we combine the science of abuse on the body in childhood, with the toxic effects of arguing as adults, we are activating those same pathways once again, which can cause illness in our bodies by being disconnected from our partner. Many times children witness the arguments and are caught in their own struggle as noted in this video of a child trying to help her parents understand what the arguing does to her and to them.
When abusive events occur in childhood as a result of our parental caregivers not providing the safety and security we need, physical illness in the body manifests, as noted previously. This is also related to the overused parasympathetic nervous system which is typically designed to help calm the brain and body down when it becomes activated by a stressor, but because the sense of safety is not perceived to be there, causing it to become activated, again and again. As adults, when we become activated by a stressor, such as our partner arguing with us or shutting us out, our parasympathetic nervous system tries calming the body down and struggles to do this, resulting in sense of panic and debilitating overwhelm. Overtime, our bodies and brains become compromised resulting in physical and mental illness.
There is hope, and it comes in the form of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for individuals, couples and families. A study called the Hand Holding Experiment shows us how couples who were connected through EFT therapy, were able to be soothed by their partner when faced with a stressor, unlike the partners who weren’t connected. It is as if a loving other replaces a burned out parasympathetic nervous system that struggles to sooth the body, and now the gesture of support calms the body down.
EFT is a game and brain changer, as noted by this article entitled ‘Deepening Dependance‘. In this article, the research and outcome studies show the power of adult connection through healing trauma with secure attachment. Remember how years ago, dependence was poo pooed and we were supposed to show our independence from others by becoming strong and independent? Turns out that can be toxic to the body, especially when there has been early trauma. When couples can work through their difficulties together and find ways to be there for each other by connecting more deeply, it changes the way the body responds and heals. This then circumvents the brain from signaling a continuous flow of stress chemicals to the body, which leads to physical illness. Deep, love heals. Cliche – yes, powerful – definitely.