When your present life feels limited by things that happened in your childhood, it’s time to find the tools and techniques to help you thrive.
For better or worse, things that happen to us in childhood can shape our reactions as adults—in ways we’re not always aware of. When Katie ended up unemployed last year, she got mired in beliefs she’d absorbed as a girl linking solvency to self-worth.
“To be foolish with money, in my father’s eyes, was one of the greatest sins,” she says. “To not be working, or saving for retirement…and both those things I’ve done this year.”
A college professor for 20 years, Katie couldn’t find a comparable position after moving from Florida to Tennessee to be with the man she’d fallen in love with. A nagging sense of financial failure, molded by her upbringing, fed into a depressive episode—which in turn sapped the motivation to reinvent herself professionally.
Katie recalls her father as an unpredictably angry man who would complain about the cost of things like taking his four children to Dairy Queen. In the midst of her depression, those echoes would spiral into irrational fears.
“On some of my worst days, I would think my husband—my sweet, incredible husband who has never been angry in any way with me—was going to come home from work and yell at me because I didn’t do anything that day except cry and binge-watch shows on Netflix. I knew that wasn’t a real fear. It was my father’s voice.”
Escaping the baneful influence of the past isn’t easy. Emotional scars acquired in childhood tend to run deep, and it takes time and a lot of willpower to transcend triggers that spark knee-jerk reactions in adulthood.
Science shows that children exposed to adversity become acutely responsive to the environment around them. It’s a trait the some don’t outgrow.
The developing brain of a child stays locked in “fight, flight or freeze” mode when faced with chronic unpredictable stress, explains science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa, who sifted through reams of research for her book Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal.
“The world can begin to feel like a pretty dangerous place,” she says.
When a child feels unsafe, Nakazawa says, “the brain sends forth a toxic bath of neurochemicals and hormones that are intended to be useful in fight, flight, freeze, and recovery. But being in this constant state of alert begins to change the way in which our genes oversee the stress response for life.
“Those genetic changes cause us to get caught in a heightened stress response even as adults.”
“Those genetic changes cause us to get caught in a heightened stress response even as adults.”
A study published in the October 2015 edition of JAMA Pediatrics involving nearly 500 young men linked early life adversity to variations in brain structure in late adolescence and an increased risk for depression and anxiety.
Those findings add to a body of previous research showing that “adverse childhood experiences” (ACE, in the lingo) make kids—and the grownups they become—more vulnerable to stress and, ultimately, more susceptible to depression and other chronic illnesses.
And it turns out the developing mind is affected not only by direct verbal or physical abuse and trauma, but also by poverty, neglect, divorce, a death in the family, and other kinds of upheaval.
As adults, survivors of early adversity may be overset by life changes that others take in stride. In 2011, the Journal of Psychiatric Research published evidence demonstrating for the first time that those exposed to early parental loss or separation may be more susceptible to depressive episodes due to interpersonal stressors, such as the end of a new romance or the transfer of a close colleague.
LEARNING TO THRIVE
Our personal histories don’t have to remain our legacy, however.
“The research is catching up on what we can do about this,” notes Jackson Nakazawa. “It’s called the science of thriving, and many research institutions are devoting great attention to figuring this out.”
The science of thriving is based on the notion that resilience—the ability to bounce back from negative circumstances—is a skill that can be learned and strengthened. Evidence indicates that enhancing resilience helps counter the impact of adverse childhood experiences—such as lower rates of school engagement and higher rates of depression in children—and reduces problems later in life.
Some lucky individuals possess the advantage of a genetic predisposition to resilience. Having at least one stable relationship with a committed, caring adult also makes a big difference in how well a child weathers adversity, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
Both children and adults benefit from reinforcing their self-efficacy, which is the confidence that you will be able to do what needs to be done to influence a situation. Setting yourself up to achieve small successes helps build this kind of confidence—though learning how to accomplish even minor goals may call for acquiring new tools in therapy or through self-help resources.
Training the brain to be more fully aware of the present moment can also be powerfully transformative. The practice of mindfulness has been shown to have neurological, physical, and mental benefits.
For many people affected by past trauma, it’s important to work with a mental health professional to deal with persisting emotional aftereffects and pull free from deep-rooted triggers.
Jackson Nakazawa cites a form of psychotherapy known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, which weakens the hold of painful memories and is used as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. She also mentions neurofeedback, a technique that helps people learn to influence their brain activity.
Childhood adversity can leave a lasting imprint in numerous ways—affecting your sense of self-worth, influencing your adult relationships, and installing toxic filters that distort the way you interpret the world.
For decades, Cabot’s life was colored by a double whammy that happened at age 7: sexual trauma, compounded by a sense that his mother withdrew emotionally when she found out.
“I became protective and my initial reaction to people and relationships came from a place of defense,” says Cabot, who later realized his single mother was dealing with issues of her own.
“I became protective and my initial reaction to people and relationships came from a place of defense.”
“I had a feeling of unworthiness… like I disappointed my mother. It’s complicated and deep and has taken me half a lifetime to iron it out.”
After early attempts to cope with his emotional pain through substance use, Cabot pursued medical treatment and psychotherapy. He married, had a son, tried to synch with the “popular narrative” of success—but the inner and outer man refused to mesh. Cabot, who is now divorced, says he felt “inauthentic” through it all.
Now he’s attempting to come to terms with his past by writing a memoir, “being really raw about discussing things most people find really disturbing to talk about.” He also gained tremendous insight at a weeklong personal-growth retreat designed to help participants move beyond negative patterns conditioned in childhood.
“There was no sense of being ‘cured,’ but I’m definitely more at peace with myself,” he says. “I have compassion for where I am in life. I’m not a failure for where I’m at. I’m doing the work and this is what it looks like.”
Sarah of New York City has done a lot of work on her issues since she was the target of severe bullying in eighth grade. That intimidation at a vulnerable age triggered her first depressive episode the following year, and left her feeling belittled and insecure for long afterward.
“I started to question my ability to speak truthfully, and whether I had a right to speak my truth,” recalls Sarah, who later found her voice as a writer and blogger.
“Those feelings of inadequacy followed me well into my 30s. I was a very self-sacrificial person. I would hide my feelings to please other people.”
The mother of two has learned to be more assertive in her personal and professional life.
“The mantra I now use often is, ‘My truth is valuable. My voice matters.’ I have to put aside what someone else might be thinking, what their reaction is going to be, the fear of not being liked, and just say what I think.”
“The mantra I now use often is, ‘My truth is valuable. My voice matters.’”
PEER POWER—AND PERILS
Tennessee therapist Julie Cousin uses the acronym ANTS as shorthand for automatic negative thoughts, “because they creep in just like little ants, do their damage, then they’re gone and you never really know they’re there.”
Techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy comes in handy for pest control, explains Cousin, a licensed professional counselor who has additional credentials in treating mental health disorders.
“It can be something as simple as seeing three people standing together start to laugh as soon as you walk into a room. You think they’re laughing at you, but consider the other possibilities. Where’s the evidence? Put those thoughts on trial and make them prove themselves.”
Sarah began psychotherapy in high school for her depression, anxiety and panic attacks. She continues to manage her wellness through therapy, medication, and working with a life coach.
Sharing her past as a way to empower others has been liberating, too. She founded the nonprofit Stigma Fighters to encourage anyone with mental health challenges to do the same.
Peer support from other trauma survivors proves useful for many people. Yet that strategy has the potential to backfire, warns Cousin.
In fact, she has backed off from encouraging clients to find support groups online: “I started finding out that people would get so caught up in trading battle stories, it was almost as if they felt like they’d no longer be part of the group if they moved past their trauma.
“Sometimes that’s a difficult choice to make simply because it can be so much a part of who they are,” she continues. “We may be talking about somebody completely changing their identity.
A NEW NARRATIVE
When the most fundamental sense of safety and security gets compromised in childhood, it’s hard to develop flexible, trusting relationships as an adult. Instead, unwitting patterns tend to undermine any hope of healthy, long-term interactions.
Too often, it can seem attractive to “develop short-term avoidance strategies to get out of the pain and then later isolate, which can cause more damage in the long run because the very thing that people need—human connection—is a trigger,” says Arturo Mundigo, MSW, RSW, a clinical social worker in Toronto.
Mundigo frequently talks with his clients about dual awareness, the concept of observing what they are feeling on the inside while acknowledging the reality of what is happening on the outside. It is a psychotherapy process often used with victims of trauma.
“It’s about acceptance, about opening up to emotion rather than struggling with it,” he adds.
“It’s about acceptance, about opening up to emotion rather than struggling with it.”
For many who have been marked by the past, there’s no “one and done” when it comes to healing. It’s an ongoing and not always linear process.
“I wish that you could just wake up and say, ‘I’m done dealing with this,’ but I don’t think that’s ever going to be the case for me,” says Katie, the former professor from Tennessee.
Katie has made peace with her father, who gained control of his anger through meditation. In fact, he gave her a book on the practice during a dark period in her life, and that got her started on a regular meditation routine.
Even when she is in the middle of a depressive episode and can’t stick to her regular routine, she tries to bring a meditative element to activities such as walking her dogs or installing a bird feeder in the back yard.
Katie reassures herself regularly that her value is not in being a wealthy person.
“Even if you’re never fully out from under the past, you can substitute the new narrative so the voice is at least louder than the old one. And it can come in sooner.”