Even those of us who had happy childhoods can recall certain experiences or periods that we wish we hadn’t lived through, but many people had to grow up under truly miserable, even traumatic, circumstances. We all know that the psychological effects of a difficult childhood linger into adulthood, but now medical researchers are examining how this plays out regarding physical health — they’ve discovered that children who endured neglect, abuse, social isolation and/or poverty have a high likelihood of developing certain medical problems now that they are adults. Understanding how this happens will reveal what specific health measures can help better the odds that such people can have long, healthy — and far happier lives.

Predictable Patterns

A study from Duke University followed a group of New Zealanders from birth for just over 30 years, at which time researchers evaluated the health of each participant. They discovered that those who experienced childhood trauma were twice as likely to suffer from serious adult health problems, including major depression and chronic inflammation (as measured by levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein), as well as metabolic markers (being overweight, high blood pressure and high total cholesterol, for example) that indicate a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia. Another long-range study — this one from Kaiser-Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine — found that half of the 286 obese people in its treatment program had been sexually abused as children.

While neither of these studies investigated what mechanism might be causing these later physical problems, researchers believe that overstimulation of the stress response in childhood continues to affect nervous, immune and endocrine functioning into adulthood. This is such a troubling situation that it made me wonder what people who suffered from early trauma might do to break free of its implications for their later health. I asked four different experts for their insights…

Judith Orloff, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life

“When people experience trauma and emotional stress, the effects get lodged — and sometimes stuck — in the body, bringing physical and emotional rigidity because the memory of the trauma remains lodged in the muscles. People who have had these experiences don’t feel safe and open to the world — they remain guarded, sometimes not even wanting to be touched or hugged. Trauma from the past absolutely can be healed, but you need to take on the task of releasing it, which will involve going back to the trauma and the feelings associated with it. Conventional therapy is important, but you can’t just talk your way out of trauma like this — you have to involve the body as well.”

What you can do: In addition to cognitive therapy, Dr. Orloff recommends that people with childhood trauma get regular massages to release the stress that is bound in the body. This relieves both old andnew stress by relaxing the muscles. She notes that people who have suffered trauma often find that getting a massage brings to the surface memories of the stressful events that they have been “carrying in their bodies,” for instance creating pain in the shoulders or lower back. Also she says, people may find they cry and, if this happens, it’s something positive. “Crying helps release memories — it is the body’s mechanism to let go of stress and increase endorphins that will help the person feel better.”

Mona Lisa Schulz, MD, PhD, neuropsychiatrist, medical intuitive and author of The Intuitive Advisor

“The brain stores memories associated with trauma in two regions. One is the hippocampus, which stores and processes lasting memory — such traumas are the experiences that people can talk about. Other memories are stored by the amygdala, which is involved with emotional learning and memories that tend to get blocked from consciousness. These memories dwell in the body and are expressed through body symptoms. Here is how:The amygdala is connected to the body’s autonomic nervous system, which affects the heart, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and the immune system. When something in the world does not feel safe and secure, the immune system, heart and digestive tract will let you know through many kinds of illness and discomfort, including cold and flu, heart palpitations and nausea. When a similar painful event happens later in life, your body responds with the same type of reaction — as if on “instant replay.”

What you can do: Dr. Schulz recommends a type of cognitive therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (www.BehavioralTech.com) that has been shown by research to “work phenomenally well for transforming childhood trauma.” She explained that DBT enables patients to learn how to soothe themselves “the minute the first sense of the amygdala-autonomic nervous system’s panic, sadness or anger sets in, so the emotions don’t go down into your body and elicit all the physical reactions.” Where mindful meditation teaches people how to handle symptoms, DBT goes further, teaching people how to deal with the emotions that lead to the symptoms — and learning to regulate emotions before they start the domino effect — freeing you from being a prisoner of your past.

Lixing Lao, PhD, LAc, senior researcher for Traditional Chinese Medicine at The Center for Integrative Medicine, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore

“In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), where organs are used to represent specific syndromes and problems, the kidney is associated with childhood development, including when it is damaged by adverse psychosocial experiences,” says Dr. Lao. “The TCM theory is that in childhood the kidneys are still weak — emotional abuse that damages the kidneys’ chi(or energy) can keep them from growing strong.”

What you can do: Dr. Lao suggests starting with a visit to an acupuncturist or a TCM practitioner who can help release these problems with herbal treatments and acupuncture to support the kidneys. “We believe that people need to also work with the problem through active treatment as well,” he noted. “For this, we advise tai chi quan, a slow martial art exercise. The movements are so slow that they quiet and calm the mind and keep its focus on the moment.” Dr. Lao recommends practicing tai chi quan consistently, every day or every other day, noting that after a year you will find yourself noticeably stronger physically and mentally.

Mark Stengler, NMD, founder and director of Stengler Center for Integrative Medicine, Encinitas, California, and author of Bottom Line Natural Healing

Finally, I asked our frequent contributor Mark Stengler, NMD, what therapies and treatments he recommends to people suffering from long-ago abuse or other trauma. He, too, reinforced that the mind is connected to the nervous and immune systems, which is why unresolved mental and emotional traumas continue to affect the body throughout the years. In addition to counseling, Dr. Stengler says that eating a healthful diet and using nutritional supplements that promote physical health, such as fish oil and B vitamins, will improve chances of emotional healing by keeping the body strong. In addition, he treats patients with homeopathic substances that help heal emotional grief and trauma, among them Natrum Muriaticum and Pulsatilla. For optimal healing, he recommends working with a holistic practitioner because that is the way to get the individualized homeopathic therapy that is best for your specific situation.

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