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Early Childhood Stress Can Have a Lingering Effect on Your Health

childhood stressStressful experiences in early childhood can have long-lasting impacts on children's health that can persist well beyond the resolution of the situation.

A study revealed impaired immune function in adolescents who experienced either physical abuse or time in an orphanage as youngsters. Even though their environments had changed, physiologically they were still responding to stress. How the immune system develops is very much influenced by early environment.

The researchers looked for high levels of antibodies against the common and usually latent herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1). While roughly two-thirds of Americans carry this virus, which causes cold sores and fever blisters, people with healthy immune systems are able to keep the virus in check and rarely if ever have symptoms. However, people with weakened immune systems can have trouble suppressing HSV-1 and produce antibodies against the activated virus.

Adolescents who had experienced physical abuse or stressful home environments as children had higher levels of HSV-1 antibodies, showing their immune systems were compromised.
Dr. Mercola's Comments:
Children are indeed like little sponges, soaking up nearly everything they hear, see and experience during these formative years. Unfortunately, if children are raised in a stressful environment, the emotional trauma can cause physical changes that impact them for the rest of their lives.

In my experience with patients, the vast majority have medical problems related to previous emotional stress. And for the serious illnesses, most of the time, the trauma went all the way back to their childhood.  

What was very consistent though is that nearly everyone was in denial that their previous emotional wounding could have any influence at all on their current health. They felt they had previously addressed that with therapists or prayer. While that is clearly possible, if they were seeing me for a continued medical problem, it was actually quite rare where the problem had been successfully addressed.

One of the few times I can think of was when a person was eating a diet that wasn’t correct for their nutritional type, and once we changed their diet their symptoms disappeared or improved.

A Stressful Childhood Can Begin in the Womb

Additionally, it is important to understand this process actually starts even before you are born, while you’re still in the womb. The evidence is very clear, for instance, that infants whose mother’s were depressed while pregnant are more likely to be irritable and sleep erratically, show diminished responsiveness, and may develop problem behaviors during their early elementary school years.

I also believe that there is a link to the father's stresses, and these frequently are transferred to the child as well.

Whether the stress occurs in utero or after, during a child’s infant years, is irrelevant. Either way it can lead to a vicious cycle of repetition that can go on for many generations. As this new study showed, children who grew up in stressful homes had weakened immune systems. This was true even of children who spent time in an orphanage, then were later raised in a loving environment.

Some 10 years or more down the line, they are still experiencing the negative impacts of their early stressors.

Unfortunately, if emotional challenges are not dealt with, the physical impact of stress can color your entire life. Think of a dog that is abused or neglected as a puppy. This trauma wires that dog’s brain to be fearful, anxious and stressed for the rest of its life. Researchers believe, and I tend to agree, that the same is true of people, particularly if nothing is done to address it.

One particularly telling study by researchers from the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts found that childhood trauma actually causes permanent physical changes to developing brains. As adults, those who had been abused and neglected as children were:

• More likely to experience epileptic seizures caused by changes to the limbic system, a part of the brain that controls emotions.

• Twice as likely as non-abused children to have an abnormal electroencephalogram (EEG), a reading that measures electrical activity of the brain. These abnormal EEGs were associated with increased self-destructive behavior and aggression.

• Deficient in development of the left side of their brain, which may lead to depression and problems with memory.

• Not able to fully integrate function of the left and right sides of their brain as well as those who had not been abused, possibly due to a decrease in the size of the bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain.

The More Severe the Trauma, the Greater Your Adult Risk

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is perhaps the largest scientific study to examine the relationship between childhood trauma and health. At their Web site you can actually calculate your ACE score (based on the number of specific emotional and/or physical abuses you experienced as a child) and use it to gauge your risk of negative consequences later in life.

Overall, what the study found was both the prevalence and risk increased for severe obesity, physical inactivity, depressed mood, and suicide attempts as the number of childhood exposures to trauma increased.

There was also a strong relationship between the number of childhood traumas and the number of health risk factors for leading causes of death in adults. In particular, they found a significant relationship between the number of childhood trauma exposures and the following disease conditions:

• Ischemic heart disease
• Cancer
Chronic bronchitis or emphysema
• History of hepatitis or jaundice
• Skeletal fractures
• Poor self-rated health

In my experience, it’s not only the amount of abuse experienced, but also the timing. The earlier the abuse occurs, the more likely it is to have a negative impact on your health. However, just because these emotional injuries have occurred does not mean that you are not capable of being healed.

Reprogramming Your Emotions for Health

Unfortunately, you don’t have control over whether your childhood was a happy one. But you do have control over your emotions right now.

Your first instinct to resolve childhood trauma may be to see a conventional psychotherapist, but in my experience, while the therapists clearly mean well, most of the time they are not able to facilitate resolution of the deep wounding.

Doing this requires dealing with your emotions on a deeper energetic level, and actually repairing the damage that’s been done.

There are a number of very effective options out there. In my experience though one of the most common and  effective techniques for doing this is called the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is an emotional version of acupuncture, minus the needles. Instead, you stimulate well established meridian points on your body by tapping on them with your fingertips, while voicing positive affirmations.

The idea is that negative emotions are caused by imbalances in your body's subtle energies (the Chinese call it Chi) and this tapping serves to restore that balance. Properly done, even the heaviest trauma becomes "just something else that happened.”

More than just about any conventional or alternative method I have used or researched, EFT works. I have witnessed the remarkable results in patients since deciding to use EFT exclusively in June 2001. The important point to remember here though is that if you have a serious illness or emotional trauma it is highly prudent to consult with an EFT professional. Avoid the mistake of trying to treat yourself, which makes about as much sense as a surgeon trying to remove his own appendix.

In minor cases, you can actually perform EFT on yourself, but in severe cases I would highly recommend you seek out a trained EFT professional. The official website for the Emotional Freedom Technique provides a list of certified EFT practitioners around the world, plus helpful advice on how to choose a practitioner that is right for you.

If you are the parent of a child who has undergone any type of emotional trauma, please realize that you can use EFT with them as well. Older children can learn to do EFT on their own, and with younger children you can do the tapping and affirmations along with them.

One thing is for certain -- you want to deal with emotional stress as soon as possible. Letting it linger only gives it more opportunity to cause harm.

In fact, most people can benefit from using EFT to clear their emotional traumas and stresses, even if you don’t think you have any. We are all exposed to stress on a daily basis, and doing a quick round of EFT is a great way to proactively clear your stress before it gets to you.

Along with using EFT to clear your deep-seated emotional wounds, I encourage you to explore other options that can help you to mange ongoing stress on a daily basis. Many people experience benefits from meditation, journaling, breathing exercises, prayer, yoga, or sharing their feelings with a close friend -- simply pick the methods that feel best for you.