Updated: Feb 19, 2021
Throughout our lives we have experienced several downhills, several disappointments, pain and the more we resisted that pain, the easier it transformed into suffering and ironically many times, we still keep wondering ..Why all those experiences keep repeating in our lives?
If we have been doing a thorough checklist of the things that our parents wanted, just assuming that in the best case scenario we have been away from alcohol, drugs or any other kind of addictions. Yet, I assure you, that you have days where even the slightest rub with someone or something seems to push a button inside you that quickly activates a cascade of “usually” negative emotions, and picturing the worst scenario we spiral down on that rage to someone or something. And despite all the possible narratives, minutes or hours after the event, we question ourselves, “How can something so damn insignificant made me react like that?”
Nevertheless the words or behavior that we already displayed has already done a damage, has hurt someone or has provoked a big change of events in your life and unfortunately even if you keep desiring it you can’t turn back time to avoid the consequence.
How is it that even when we tried not to react, we still failed? Why does it seem such an unbearable or overwhelming task to stop reacting?
Well, let’s go back a few years back to your childhood, because that's where the root cause of pretty much all of your triggers, educated reactions, and programmed buttons is. Yes, even if think that your childhood experiences apparently were very “healthy” and “smooth” we all have been programmed with traditions, customs, beliefs and a huge amount of reactions that we experienced, simply by living with our parents, caregivers or any person that was responsible for you.
As children our first impressions of the world come from our eyes, come from imitation, come from watching others live. In addition to that we are a social species that has grown in certain set of rules, patterns and structures made from a bigger self-created entity called “society”.
Hence many of our beliefs, traditions, customs and structures come from that “society” we grew up, it all looks pretty easy to understand so far, as we are justing surfing the lining of all these learned or programmed behaviors. However if we start going deeper and taking you into a journey of science we will discover that many of our diseases, reactions, and “handicaps” as adults come from that particular point in time ..our childhood.
Recent scientific advances have highlighted the role that early childhood experiences play in human development. Chronic exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction can damage long-term physical and mental health. The effects of ACEs on neural circuitry are particularly salient during sensitive developmental periods and highlights the need for effective intervention during infancy and early childhood. Safe, supportive, nurturing environments have been shown to reduce the risk of negative health outcomes associated with ACEs. Thus, enhancing responsive caregiving early in life may promote resilience and support child development among ACE exposed children (1).
An additional and essential aspect of this story is the realization that early life experiences, both positive and negative, shape the trajectories of physical and mental health over the life course and that there are factors in utero as well as traits passed on by “epigenetic” and behavioral mechanisms across generations (2).
More than that, future medicine must advocate the importance of intervening early in life to prevent adverse early life experiences that have life-long consequences, referred to as “biological embedding” for physical and mental health. Furthermore, when adverse biological embedding has occurred, treatments that “open windows of plasticity” can allow targeted behavioral interventions to redirect brain and body functions and behavior in healthier directions (2).
Analyzing research provided above and of course compiling evidence have found that all of our adverse experiences in childhood will have an effect on our development, first as adolescents and after as adults, it is also needed to stress that these ACE’s have an impact in our brain and body reactions. Perhaps this can be easier to be seen if we add a real story, a child (5 years old) that is continuously watching his father arrive drunk, be aggressive with his mom, be selfish about anything he wants, and just have a display of emotions everyday that in turn put the child in a very high stress mode, at such an early stage of life many of his brain and immune system are still developing and forming neural connections.
However as we have mention there are two very important hormones that after being release due to stressful situations allow a cascade of more reactions that start with raising blood pressure, shutting down metabolic functions, lowering the production of immune system compounds such as immunoglobulins (immune messengers), causing a disruption in the maturation process of dendritic cells (gossip cells that pass the message of a foreign toxic compound in our body) as well as the macrophages (another type of gossip cell that also has a function of engulfing and destroying pathogens allowing the presentations of antigens to immune cells and generating an immune response). Additionally if your brain senses danger, it will activate your primitive brain and some structures made for this kind of situation, demanding all the energy for reflex and fight or flight responses giving as a result the disruption of new neural networks in the creative and learning process and making the child be more reactive to the environment instead of fostering the production of neural pathways that stimulate learning, refection and peace of mind.
And this is just the beginning of the consequences that we can experience if we are continuously exposed to these kind of situations throughout our childhood , furthermore the cascade of toxic substances can make its way down to our genes and allow epigenetic marks such as DNA methylation, Histone Methylation or Acetylation just to mention the most important ones.
What does Epigenetic “stains” mean in simpler words?
Well, just to mention one of the most proven mechanisms of this kind of “stains” is the alterations patterns of methylation produced by a group of enzymes called DNA MethylTransferases (DNMT), the methylation process results when adding a methyl (-CH3) group to usually a Cytosine base in our DNA. This process is like making a bump in the road and then been unable to circulate, without having a huge possibility to fall in there and get a flat tire, instead what happens in our DNA with those kinds of “bumps” or “stains” is that our enzymes that are in charge of reading the genes (RNA or DNA Polymerases) have a hard time to position themselves in the correct sequence, or simply the sequence is just hidden or damaged, giving a “defective” reading sequence which in turn will produce a “defective” protein or a “cheaper” protein.
The build up of these kind of proteins will eventually produce a disease that can be manifested a year, five years, ten years after these events, meaning that you are starting your scorecard of “stains” or “bumps” that if you don’t correct your lifestyle will eventually be expressed.
Early life adversity in the form of abuse and neglect in infancy and childhood are a huge contributor to allostatic overload during the life course because of the biological embedding of those experiences in memories in the brain; these memories sensitize and also qualitatively change the ways in which the brain responds to experiences in daily life, particularly those that relate to reminders of early life trauma. The responses include not only behaviors but also neuroendocrine, autonomic, immune and metabolic responses. As a result, depression, substance abuse and antisocial behavior are more likely to occur in those experiencing ACE, along with sexual precocity and higher risk for AIDS and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and obesity as a result of greater allostatic overload. Prefrontal cortical development is impaired by early life adversity resulting in deficits in emotional self regulation (2).
To finalize the numerous adverse consequences that we can experience and are embedded within our body or our brain we can see that all those experiences that we lived in the past (childhood, more precisely) can also have consequences in the way our body will regulate our response to stress (allostatic), it is also worth mentioning that the threshold of our stress will be raised, predisposing us to look more adrenaline or rush in dangerous or conflictive situations, which as mentioned above will also allow a tendency to develop an addiction to any kind of substance or just other type of addiction to work, sex or troublesome relationships.
It is not difficult now to infer that many of the epidemic diseases that are sky rocketing health charts in many developed and underdeveloped countries with diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular risk, obesity, anxiety, depression, autoimmune disorders and I dare to say (based on research) many types of cancer are just a consequence of the experiences we lived in our childhood, the pain we swallowed, the unawareness or irresponsibility sometimes of not “having time” to take care of ourselves and our inner world.
This situation can be perfectly related to the our previous article of “Why Education Systems are Obsolete?” because our childhood patterns, traditions and wounds are cultivated generation through generation, and this leads the conversation now to breaking the patterns, to allow ourselves to love differently form what we have been thought, to challenge our old beliefs, and start awakening to a new reality, a new lifestyle that includes and has as a priority our self care.
Endless times I have witness people that underestimate their health or they leave almost no time and no resources to their self care, as if our body, mind and spirit would be the last thing in their list and also the last expense they are willing to do, because there are other “priorities” such as the new cell phone, a new car, the new trending hairstyle, clothes or any disposable item that you could think of ….
To start having an impact and allowing yourself to break all the patterns and programs that you have received since childhood you gotta be willing to realize that you will quit many things that you thought were true, were “good”, you must be able to go within and do a deep search of your most painful experiences, self-narrate the story, allow yourself to use some of the tools discussed before such as journaling or recording yourself.
To help you more in this journey I will suggest a very straight path with three key steps to start the detoxifying or cleaning process:
Make a list of five painful experiences or memories that you lived as a child and describe them in great detail allowing yourself to detect the key emotion that the experience triggered in you when you lived it, this will be easier when start writing down or recording the experience as it will awaken probably the same emotion.
Put yourself in an observer position, you are just narrating an experience and you have to be humble or bold enough to stop any kind of judgement or blame, we’re just trying to bring back the experience, the emotion and mostly the most accurate draft of the story that you have saved in your memory.
As you narrate the experience point out the behavior that you had when that happen, after that put a proposed or more conscious behavior that could have helped you to strive in that situation, if apparently there isn’t any behavior that could have given you a better end result, just take some time off and come back to the exercise. Additionally try to put yourself in the situation of the person that caused the event, using their own past experiences (childhood events) so that you can allow yourself some compassion and empathy towards the person (that doesn’t mean that it was justified, we’re just trying to draw a more accurate story that will allow you to ease the process of forgiveness).
This “simple” but painful process has to be repeated until you really find the courage to let the experience be healed, to create a healthier narrative as well as giving yourself permission to recognize that you were being building up toxic emotions that most likely have been affecting your presence life.
No one is completely exempt of pain, of unconscious behavior, of built pain that probably was just poured on ourselves when we were children because we all have lived our lives (pretty much) unconscious about our own inner pain, therefore we have always justified or thought we were doing the “right thing” with our children.
Nevertheless is about time that we step up in a different mindset were we allow ourselves to question, to challenge and to be more in a seeking mode of better tools, healthier lifestyles, and healthier beliefs that nurture our inner self and create a loving, compassionate and peaceful environment in our family, in our home, in our neighborhood and why not ..in our society!!
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Woods-Jaeger, B. A., Cho, B., Sexton, C. C., Slagel, L., & Goggin, K. (2018). Promoting resilience: Breaking the intergenerational cycle of adverse childhood experiences. Health Education & Behavior, 45(5), 772-780.
McEwen, B. S. (2017). Integrative medicine: Breaking down silos of knowledge and practice an epigenetic approach. Metabolism, 69, S21-S29.