Counselors and mental health professionals of all stripes are coming to understand the prevalence of childhood adversity, toxic stress and trauma in our caseloads. Barely a day goes by that we do not see someone with a trauma history, whether we are aware of it or not. Some have even called for universal trauma screening of all clients and patients as an ethical responsibility, especially for those individuals who are more at risk, including first responders, military personnel, refugees, those with serious medical and chronic illness, and people struggling with addiction. It would help to know what we are dealing with upfront.
I became aware of a duty to inquire about trauma in 2007 when I began the Supportive Oncology Service (SOS), a psychosocial counseling practice colocated in a medical oncology setting. I had been teaching, practicing and publishing mostly in addiction studies at the time, but I was hungering for change in my own clinical work. When the opportunity to work alongside physicians and learn about serious medical illness came along, I jumped at it. Quickly, I discovered that what I was learning about the interface between addiction and trauma could just as easily be applied to the occurrence of trauma in a cancer-involved population. This cross-fertilization of ideas and their practical outcomes has been a rich source of learning for me.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) studies, a collaborative project between Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), instigated my interest. The ACE project was designed to study long-term relationships between adverse experiences in childhood and adult health and behavioral outcomes. I had begun looking into this as an offshoot of my addiction work but promptly came to realize its applications in the general population. The initial studies were conducted from 1995 to 1997 with 17,000 ordinary Americans in a large outpatient medical clinic and now have been replicated across a number of states and even internationally.
Since its inception in 1995, numerous papers have been published by the ACE project that present the evidence for consistently strong and graded relationships between adverse experiences in childhood, household dysfunction and a host of negative health outcomes later in life. Many of the most serious illnesses facing our country — heart disease, cancers, chronic lung and liver disease, a host of autoimmune disorders, obesity, substance-related and addictive disorders — as well as a variety of health-risk behaviors, including smoking, use of illicit drugs, high numbers of sexual partners and suicide attempts, are strongly related in a dose-response or graded fashion to childhood adverse experiences.
This suggests that the impact of adverse childhood experiences on adult health status and adult suffering more generally is powerful. Dose-response relationships indicate a change in outcome (e.g., harmful substance use or ischemic heart disease) that is associated with different levels of exposure to a stressor. Experiencing multiple categories of trauma in childhood increases the prospects for later illness. ACE studies measure the number of categories of exposure and not the number of instances; for example, one instance or multiple instances of sexual assault would count as one category. If anything, this underestimates a person’s exposure to adverse experiences.
Researchers are finding that the occurrence of adverse experiences is quite common in all populations. Relationships found in the original population are being replicated elsewhere. Fifty-two percent of those participating in the original study acknowledged at least one category of adversity in childhood. Eighty-seven percent of those who acknowledged one adverse childhood experience also experienced additional adversities. The study revealed that adverse experiences occur in clusters, with 40 percent of the original sample reporting two or more categories of adversity and 12.5 percent experiencing four or more categories of adversity.
The ACE categories are as follows:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Mother is treated violently
- Loss of a parent for any reason
- Mental illness in the home, including suicidal behavior or institutionalization
- Substance abuse in the household
- Criminal behavior in the household, including incarceration of a household member
What first strikes people when they review the categories above is how different the list seems from what we expect. It challenges our assumptions. Many of us are familiar with the standard understandings of trauma connected to natural or human-made disasters, battlefield experiences, violence or sexual assault. Clearly, these are life-altering events. Although these categories are on any list of traumatic events, so are forms of household dysfunction, neglect, and emotional abuse and humiliation. We are coming to understand that, when dealing specifically with children, a wider range of traumatic experiences can be equally devastating and produce debilitating outcomes years later. Further studies are also uncovering negative outcomes related to more “ordinary” adversities such as accidents, childhood hospitalizations or the loss of a sibling.
The ACE results had suggested that the different categories were essentially equal in their damage. This was startling. However, ongoing trauma science supports this conclusion. Although some categories of adversity stand out because of the social significance and stigma attached to them, we now know that more hidden or subtle adversities, such as neglect and experiences of recurrent humiliation by a parent, can both be detrimental in the present and carry long-term consequences for adult health and psychiatric illness. Scientists such as Martin Teicher and his colleagues at Harvard University have documented the potent negative effects of parental verbal aggression and emotional maltreatment.
More common adversities can have large impacts on children. The clinical and research focus on posttraumatic stress disorder may have slanted our expectations, giving us the impression that adversity comes only with high-profile suffering. If it doesn’t leave a mark, it can’t be all that damaging, right? In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
In short, poor health and risk for illness — medical as well as psychiatric — can be rooted in childhood psychosocial experiences. They can also be hidden due to time, denial and social taboo. The ongoing ACE studies and allied research have given us a new lens for viewing health, wellness and disease. This is nothing short of revolutionary. It is instructive that this new vision has been picked up by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Programs for medical education, intervention and prevention are being developed by these groups and others.
Looking at cancer
In 2010, one of the ACE papers made the dose-response link to risk for lung cancer. This got my attention. Adverse childhood experiences are obviously not the only causes of cancers — disease is often multicausal. However, the associations this paper made between having a history of adverse childhood experiences and those who were first hospitalized at younger ages with lung cancer and died prematurely at younger ages from lung cancer were striking. Smokers were much more likely to have a history of adverse childhood experiences than were nonsmokers. In addition, those with adverse childhood experiences were more likely to begin smoking at younger ages than were other smokers.
I was amazed until I went back and did a chart review for my small oncology service. At that time, we had seen about 100 patients. Admittedly, this was a potentially skewed population, but even so, 60-70 percent of our patients with a variety of cancers met the ACE criteria for adverse experiences, and a large proportion of them had multiple ACE categories in their past. Research had suggested that those with four or more categories of childhood adversity were likely to be diagnosed with cancer or some other serious illness. Those with six or more categories had a life expectancy shortened by up to 20 years. My patient population buttressed those numbers. In addition, several of my patients who were not smokers but nevertheless were diagnosed with lung cancer did have a history of trauma. That day I became a believer in universal screening for trauma in my population of cancer patients. My colleagues and interns have also become believers.
When I discussed these outcomes with several of my physician colleagues, they quickly came to the conclusion that because childhood adversity was strongly associated with the risk of early smoking — nicotine is a powerful anti-anxiety agent — that would likely explain the prevalence among patients with lung cancer. Case closed. If a cancer patient also had a traumatic childhood history, smoking was the likely pathway from trauma to lung cancer. Risky behavior led to later disease.
This did not sit well with me, however. First, it did not explain the high trauma numbers in my cancer patients more generally (a number of whom were nonsmokers) and, second, identifying only this pathway seemed too facile. I believed that more was involved.
Changes that make us vulnerable
At first blush, ascribing disease to risky behaviors and poor lifestyle choices seems reasonable. There is obviously some truth to it. Lots of scientific evidence points to smoking as a risk for cancer. Still, I wondered, could there be other pathways from childhood adversities to cancer? The connections seemed clear, but what were the explanations? As an addiction specialist, I was suspicious of the “poor choices” explanation. Were there other, hidden dynamics that were not so obvious?
This is where the intersection of childhood adversity and neurobiology becomes so important. As a counselor, I had focused my thinking on the social and psychological explanations. Childhood adversity short-circuited psychosocial development. Trauma created toxic stress in a person’s life. Negative experiences became part of a person’s sense of self and view of the world, which made living difficult. These negative experiences also placed emotional burdens on the person’s psyche and spirit, creating negative internal images, expectations and attachments at the core of the personality. People learned to be wary of others and became more guarded, isolated and distrustful. Fair enough. But how do we get to physical disease?
This move requires an alchemical kind of insight — namely that the footprints of our psychosocial experiences of attachment and caregiving are inscribed into our brains and bodies in what Allan N. Schore, Daniel J. Siegel and others call “psychobiological” experiences. Donna Jackson Nakazawa, in her 2015 book Childhood Disrupted, described it this way: Biography becomes biology.
We are continuing to learn about the depths of this process. From our earliest beginnings, experience shapes the development of our brains, bodies and critical survival systems. The formation of our neural architecture, emotional and cognitive networks, regulatory systems, coping and stress response, and immune systems depends on the kinds of caretaking we receive. Social networking is part of our DNA it seems; it is essential for our survival but can also create vulnerabilities.
In childhood, all the essential systems are forming and developing. When children are caught in cycles of abuse, neglect or humiliation, their stress response and coping mechanisms can be degraded and become stuck in the “on” position. Their bodies are continually bathed in inflammatory stress chemicals. This can lead to physiological changes, long-lasting inflammation, eventual breakdown and disease. The immune system can be weakened, even at the level of genes. Neuroscience is helping to document these enduring kinds of changes, large and small, that are the pathways to later illness.
Another form of negative development that can follow from childhood adversity affects the child’s regulatory coping mechanisms for stress. This can lead to difficulties such as substance use and addictive disorders. Emotional and behavioral regulation are essential skills, built upon the foundation of neurological development. Toxic stress, however, can alter and “miswire” the development of critical coping systems, resetting their baseline levels of activity and making them supersensitized, not only to stress but also to triggers that signal the approach of rewarding or stressful situations. In these instances, individuals may substitute chemical or behavioral forms of coping, reward, relieving stress or alleviating anxiety and pain. Regularly resorting to such substitutes can ingrain these choices into neural channels that are resistant to change once firmly set.
These ways of thinking have opened my eyes. Childhood maltreatment and adversity alter children’s brain development and create the underlying conditions for short-term coping and long-term medical and psychiatric problems, including cancers and addiction. The intersection of knowledge from developmental psychology, attachment theory, trauma and neuroscience is presenting us with many new ways to conceptualize the challenges that confront us. As counselors, it is imperative that we remain open to these new developments.
Based on my experience, I want to make some practical recommendations:
1) Counselors need to learn all we can about adverse childhood experiences and their impact on adult living.
2) We can all benefit from universal screening for adversity and trauma as a first step in clinical work. A few simple questions can be added to our standard history taking. Asking these questions on an abstract or computerized form, followed up with face-to-face conversation, has been found to be the best practice for obtaining accurate information. There may be direct health benefits to these conversations. As reported in Nakazawa’s book Childhood Disrupted, physicians who discussed adverse childhood experience questions with patients following completion of intake forms found a 35 percent reduction in office visits and an 11 percent reduction in emergency room visits for patients with chronic ailments over the ensuing year.
3) When we discover a history of adversity, we should remain curious, be empathic and be predisposed to believe. The primary consideration initially is creating a safe space.
4) Be prepared for pendulum swings in the conversations. It is normal to move forward in the story and then back off when the client shows anxiety.
5) Teach grounding techniques so that the client can retreat to safety when overwhelmed.
6) As is the case in much of our counseling work, self-knowledge is critical. Each of us can benefit from conducting our own self-assessment of adversity and trauma. Understanding our own issues and working with them may be the most important first step in recognizing the problem and then working with others.
Good luck. This work, I believe, is one of the greatest secrets and potential resources in clinical practice today. Trauma continues to be a hidden occurrence among our clients and patients for too many counselors, physicians and human service providers. We need to do better.
Oliver J. Morgan is a professor of counseling and human services at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. He is beginning his 27th year at the university and is completing a book titled Hungry Hearts: Unlocking the Secrets of Addiction and Recovery. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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