Writing

How our Past Impacts our Well-Being Today

Last week I saw the movie Eighth Grade by Bo Burnham. This moving film serves as both a time capsule and a timeless expression of the human condition. Viewers are transported back to eighth grade with a heavy dose of nostalgia, reliving all of eighth grade’s trials and tribulations. It was too easy to put myself in the shoes of Kayla. Many moments validated embarrassing childhood experiences that I had but never discussed.

It communicates a universal truth that, in the director’s own words, “very small things can be incredibly aggressive.” Depicting the battle with anxiety that many face, it shows that moments don’t need to be expertly scripted to be incredibly significant. It is the most refreshing film I’ve seen in a while. Not only because of the intense realism but also because of the weight that it placed on these ordinary events.

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For me, the movie came at the perfect time. I just moved back home for the summer after living abroad for 10 months. Moving back home reawakens moments from childhood experiences and may even cause us to face them again in reimagined ways. The heavy dose of nostalgia that I experienced while watching this film further opened my eyes to the past, giving me a full perspective of what I was going through as a young person.

Eighth Grade brought up thoughts about how incidents and emotions from our younger years still affect our interpretation of the world today. Our fears, insecurities, or feelings of unworthiness were taught to us in experiences we had as children. For those who haven’t seen the film, it helps to look back at who we were as young people and validate our past emotional experiences. Even if it’s just a pool party or singing karaoke, as a pubescent teen, those experiences are a huge deal.  Enjoy some cringy photos of mine from the eighth grade and join me by taking a look at your own and try to empathize with your young self. It’s quite a powerful exercise.

 

All adults were once children; we all have a past that influences us today. One way to further understand past experiences is by taking the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey. Psychologists have developed this measure to help dispel shame and secrecy surrounding childhood experiences and to help us understand the complex emotional and physical issues we have as adults.

“When we make it okay to talk about what happened, it removes the power that secrecy so often has.”  ACE Author Vincent Felitti

Keep in mind that the survey is about past adverse experiences so it may bring up difficult emotions. You can find that survey here. You may encounter questions that ring true, but don’t correlate with a specific memory, just a general feeling. This means that the memory may be repressed, or was too early in life for it to have formed solidly. It can help to reach out to a trusted relative about these unclear memories. Ultimately, trust your initial emotion to inform your answers. The survey asks participants to write a number one next to each traumatic incident they can recall. Regardless of the nature of the event, all events are scored as a one. Findings from the ACE survey are serious. They have important implications for education and child-rearing as well as for the entire field of psychotherapy.

The higher your ACE score, the higher your risk for disease and emotional problems. A score of 4 or more indicates an unusually high risk for chronic diseases such as pulmonary lung disease as well as depression and alcoholism. For women, even with scores below 4, each added adverse experience increases the chance of developing an autoimmune disease by 20 percent. This is just some of the evidence presented in the book Childhood Disrupted: How your biography becomes your biology and how you can heal by Donna Jackson Nakazawa (Linked below). You can also find more data here.

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One profound finding highlighted in Donna’s book is that the nature or severity of trauma does not always matter. Completely different traumatic events can lead to the same psychological and physical outcomes for adults. No matter which items you’ve checked off, whether it is physical abuse, parental divorce, or humiliation, the higher your score, the higher your risk. Using the survey, no single experience adds more weight than another.

According to the book, the most powerful aspect that influences the severity of an adverse experience is unpredictability. When a child (under 18) encounters chronic, unpredictable, toxic, stress or CUTS. Unpredictable experiences are particularly harmful because our bodies can actually handle severely stressful events if they are predictable, but cannot tolerate even mild unpredictable events. CUTS is usually present in a home where a parent is an alcoholic or an emotional abuser; the parent is unpredictable. Sometimes they are loving other times they are cruel.

The author describes it by using an analogy about a bear. If you see a bear, your fight or flight response is triggered, heart-rate is raised, and cortisol starts pumping. When the bear leaves, heart-rate returns to normal, and you begin to calm down. It’s just one wave of autonomic activation that comes and goes. Now imagine the bear constantly circling your home. This is where unpredictability comes into play. You would always be on edge and hypervigilant about when he bear might attack. This means that the fight or flight response is activated continuously at a low level, even when there is no present threat. This stress response that never shuts off causes dysregulation of stress hormones leading to physical damage like high levels of inflammation all throughout the body.

CUTS can be very harmful despite that fact that we are not likely to actually consider it “trauma.” When emotional instability within a child’s home is not taken seriously it can become damaging physically and mentally. It is important for us to recognize the harm that more implicit adverse experiences can cause and awaken to their effects on our lives today. This idea is not to diminish the stories of those with more typical types of trauma as the seriousness of those have been widely cited, but to remember not to minimize even subtle adverse experiences from childhood. Simply having divorced parents means one is 2x more likely to have a stroke. That direct effect between a biographical fact and health is unprecedented.

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This all seems relatively negative, but there is some light to it all. There are preventative factors, such as having a reliable adult, that can lessen the blow of these adverse experiences for children. It is important that we encourage young people to awaken to the trauma they are living through as early as possible and to dispel any shame they are carrying with it.

For those of us who are adults and are just now awakening to these experiences, there’s hope for us too. Just hearing this information about how our past influences our present ignites a sense of freedom. For me, it helps to explain the feeling that some invisible force has been working against me and my well-being. It brings a sense of clarity and a potential cause for some physical symptoms that medical tests haven’t been able to explain. The author of the book herself, Donna Jackson Nakazawa, wrote this book based on personal experiences that she had with autoimmune disease. The book was a result of her own healing journey. When she discovered Adverse Childhood Experiences, she had an epiphany and ultimately turned her life around. Now she has written this book and is helping so many others to deal with the painful and widely complex illnesses and emotional struggles that she fought.

Stories that rise from deep suffering can provide the most potent remedies for past, present, and even future ills. -Clarissa Pinkola Estés

I have finally come to part 2 of the book which begins to outline the road to healing. How do we overcome these adverse experiences that we have faced in the past and heal our bodies and minds? I have yet to finish the book, so I am looking forward to hearing the author’s insights. So far I predict that the most important ways are as followed:

Awakening to our past and how it affects us today, forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, working through finding how difficult emotions were learned and then unlearning them, changing overactive physiological responses, and fostering unconditional self-love.

Simple right?

The goal for my next post is to further outline the process of healing and provide strategies to tackle it all. In the meantime, here is a place to start. Try this meditation aimed at fostering a sense of compassion for your past and present self.

Also, be sure to check out this life-changing book. https://amzn.to/2MFWNa0

Sources:

Got Your ACE Score?

https://donnajacksonnakazawa.com/childhood-disrupted/

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