Mysterious Aches and Pains: Symptoms of Childhood Trauma in Adults
Updated: Apr 21
Is There a Mind-Body Connection?
What if the ways we struggle, both health-wise and emotionally, are connected? Symptoms of something deeper. Pain that deserves tending to with kindness. In the Western world we view the mind and body as separate, and childhood as separate from adulthood--but are they? A landmark study by Kaiser and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), looked at just that.
The ACE Study
This enormous study of over 17,000 patients, called The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE) had one central question: are there long-term health symptoms of childhood trauma in adults? More specifically, does childhood adversity (such as maltreatment, emotionally abusive parents, uninvolved parenting, or being traumatized) affect us as adults? Are there health or psychological effects of moving frequently? The researchers wanted to know whether these experiences linger with us in some way, and what they found was groundbreaking.
What is Childhood Adversity?
Classically, we think of childhood adversity as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, or being neglected and, although it is all these things, this study encompassed a broader collection of experiences. These included: not feeling loved or valued, experiencing humiliation or fear, verbal abuse, moving frequently, a family member suffering mental illness, or attempting or completing suicide; imprisonment of family; addiction within your family, losing a parent in some way (including estrangement), witnessing domestic violence, or neglectful parenting. Although it wasn’t possible for Kaiser and the CDC to include every childhood adversity (and they did not include some common ones, such as spiritual abuse), the ACE study defined adversity much more broadly than we typically do in everyday life.
Your Story Matters
I want to linger here for a bit. So many of the experiences listed above are ones we often brush off as nothing. Ones that we don’t allow ourselves to acknowledge as having brought hardship, emotional pain or physical pain. And yet, they were considered significant by two huge health organizations for this enormous, historic study. Every culture has it’s way of coping with adversity. One of our ways in America is to minimize. To not allow ourselves to name the weight we carry. There’s a need in our culture to be okay, even when underneath we know we really aren’t well.
If I may linger a bit longer, something else that deserves being highlighted is that the ACE study did not rate how long or severe any of these adversities were: only whether someone had (or had not) experienced each one. We are tempted to dismiss our stories. To say someone else suffered more (or longer) than we did. Let your heart hear this study’s validation that each adversity is significant. Our formational experiences and relationships shape us. They shape our understanding of the world, ourselves, each other, and our physical and mental well being later in life (as we will soon get to). Healing comes through acknowledging and sifting through our story. Through letting ourselves grieve and be angry for what we have gone through, what we have lost, and what was stolen from us... And those tears water the seedlings of hope, joy, and restoration. Your tears are your path back to the ability to dream, desire, be creative, engage adventure, and to once again allow yourself to play. Those tears linked with the proper anger at the injustice of what you have suffered pave the path blessing both your brokenness and beauty, and how they have come to be.
Each of these things deserves much time. We have but meandered through them briefly. For now, we return back to the ACE study, but we’ll be back to each of these in future blogs.
The Legacy of Childhood Adversity
After much data crunching (just thinking about it makes my head hurt), Kaiser and the CDC found their study revealed many stunning outcomes that were true across multiple cultures, races, and states. The data revealed profound relationships between adverse childhood experiences and adult health (both physical and emotional). Unearthed by their data were truths that, on some level, we have always known: the mind and body aren’t separate, and neither are childhood and adulthood separate. As renowned trauma specialist, and 2nd generation Holoucaust survivor, Bessel van der Kolk says, “The body keeps the score at the deepest level of the organism.”
A Taste of the Data
You know a study is remarkable when it blows the minds of its own researchers. In this article, I can only name a handful of the snowflakes on the iceberg of findings, so if research is your cup of tea, check out the many papers that this study gave rise to!
The ACE study found that the majority of us (67%) have experienced at least one of the ACEs they inquired about. Which begs the question--what would that percentage be if all forms of childhood adversity were measured? Over 20% of respondents acknowledged four or more ACEs. One of many things that this study highlights is that experiences we brush off as “small t” trauma--stay with us in our bodies. Often for a lifetime.
Health outcomes in adulthood included a broad range of chronic diseases (including 4 of the leading causes of death, autoimmune disease, and Hepatitis), pregnancy complications, many mental health outcomes (including anxiety, depression, and being suicidal), as well as reduced function of your immune system (do you get colds a lot?).
The strength of the outcomes were almost unheard of--as much as twelve times the normal risk! And, for each ACE reported, the stronger the relationship between childhood adversity and health outcomes became. If that sounds like Greek to you (my apologies to Greece), it means that for every ACE you have experienced, your risk of some kind of health price-tag (physical or mental), and the more likely you will be to take lifestyle risks with your health.
What Does This Mean?
While this study is ongoing, there is much we can take home. The results are a strong statement that our physical health is not simply genetics or bad luck; and that the ways we struggle emotionally don't come out of a vacuum. It also shows a relationship between emotional pain and using something to numb that pain whether that be alcohol, smoking, or drugs as included in this study or other things such as staying busy, media, food, a high adrenaline lifestyle ... The ACE study is also a poignant statement that we are not alone. Whether we speak of our stories or not, there are people all around us whose stories overlap in some way with our own.
What Doesn’t it Mean?
These outcomes shake the foundation of our Western paradigm that the mind and body are separate. So, in this space, I also want to offer a bit of what this study is not.
Although this study finds that many health outcomes have a connection to ACEs, and that the stress our bodies hold may make us more vulnerable to illness, it’s not saying that it causes every health issue, or that all mental unwellness is rooted in childhood adversity. Nor is it saying that having experienced heartache or harm in childhood guarantees poor health. What it does mean is that there is a toll on the body--some price tag--and the way that toll shows up is as diverse as the flowers in the meadows. Yet, at the same time there are common threads, and these common threads continue to unfold more and more as this study continues.
May I speak to a myth in our society? We frequently speak of children as resilient. And although there is resiliency and it is possible to overcome much, the way we speak about it feels as though it will erase any ill effects. This study is an overwhelming testament to how children are not as resilient as we wish them to be; how much they need our protection and care, as well as how many of us didn’t have as much protection or care as our hearts needed. Perhaps, we desperately long for children to be resilient not only for their sake, but for our own sakes when we were young.
On some level we know the results of this study to be true. We feel the weight. We wake up thinking, “I hate my life,” or "I don’t know how to feel happy again." We struggle sleeping because of the anxiety and depression we hold, our achy joints, or general body aches. We find ways to deal with chronic muscle tightness, chronic illness, and chronic fatigue... The body is tied to our mind and heart--and it remembers. And even when we cannot bear to remember, it remembers for us. We numb its voice with busyness, Advil, a drink, or write it off as something else. But it always comes back and gently taps us on the shoulder (or not so gently) and asks us to step into our stories, to learn to hold them with kindness, and to release the burden that it carries.
Healing Comes Through your Story
For some of you, all of this is new information. Maybe it's info you wrestle with, or need some time to absorb. For others, this may feel like finding home for the first time. Wherever you find yourself, this study invites you to ponder what heartache, harm, or adversity you may not have given yourself permission to acknowledge. It invites you to listen to your body and the story that it is telling you. To look at your emotional pain in a new way. It invites you to step into your story, whatever it may be, however inconsequential or absent you may feel it is, or conversely, how significant and painful it is. Listening to your body is your path to reclaiming those places that have been marred. And as you begin to untangle the particularities of how you have been harmed, you will find that the sweetness of a life you’ve hoped could be, but may never have experienced, begins to unfold. What story does your body hold?