Tame Your Dragon with Compassion-focused Therapy (CFT)!

Do you sense that you are your own worst enemy?  Is your inner critic’s voice loud and obnoxious on most days?  Are you challenged to accept your flaws as a human being?  Do you find yourself berating yourself when you make a mistake?  Is most of your energy and time spent on trying to be perfect in order to avoid making such mistakes?  Well, you are not alone and Compassion-focused Therapy (CFT) might be the prescription that the doctor orders!

Talk therapy, or psychotherapy, can take many forms, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Emotionally-focused Therapy (EFT), and Narrative Therapy, and Compassion-focused Therapy (CFT) is one of the newer kids on the block.  However, the research is very promising and CFT is making a name for itself within the field of psychotherapy!  It evolved as an approach to healing for people experiencing high shame and self-criticism that creates mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression, and addictive, impulsive behaviors.  And, having been a perfectionist in the past that suffered from anxiety growing up in an environment born from chaos, I can personally attest to the peace that comes from quieting the inner critic and accepting my imperfections as a normal, natural state as a spiritual being having a human experience.

So if you are tired of trying to be perfect (whatever that is?!?) and feeling like a failure when you make mistakes, all hope is not lost.  If you are thinking that you might need some help in challenging the shame that your inner critic brings up, then you might seek out support from someone that will work with you to expand your ability to experience compassion through CFT.  As a psychotherapist that looks through such a compassionate lens, it has been my experience that it will feel awkward at first because it is something new and different.  Yet, it is exactly that feeling that indicates there is much room for growth and healing through compassion.

Although I have not done any research of my own, I can personally attest to the shift I have experienced as well as the shifts I have seen in my clients when our hearts began to open to the idea of our common humanity through compassion.  For those of you that need a little more evidence, click on the link below to read a review that summarizes the findings of research where CFT has improved the mental health in clinical populations:

Is self-compassion the answer to happiness?

If we are lucky, our parents actively taught us the concept of compassion towards others.  If we were very lucky, our parents actively taught us self-compassion.  Unfortunately, it is only recently that such concepts have come forward in the research as tools to support our body, mind and spiritual health, so most of us may not feel lucky.  Fortunately, compassion – and self-compassion – can be cultivated and integrated into our experiences, both with others and with ourselves, no matter how old we are currently.

So what is self-compassion?  Many of us might think it includes self-pity, which will tend to keep us from cultivating the belief that we deserve comfort and care when we are experiencing pain and suffering.  Dr. Kristen Neff defines self-compassion as having three elements: 1) self—kindness versus self-judgment; 2) common humanity versus isolation; 3) mindfulness versus over-identification.  The three elements build upon the need to accept that we are human and, as such, are perfectly imperfect.  This means we will all fail at something in our lives, we will all subjected to loss at some point and we will all trip up and make mistakes on our journeys – these are all facts of life.  When we think we can bypass these inevitable experiences or ignore the pain that such experiences cause us, we open ourselves up to a deeper level of suffering.  It is when we encounter such challenges in our lives that we need to offer ourselves the same kindness and care as we would offer to someone we love, instead of offering judgment or criticism.  That’s self-compassion.

There is so much judgment and criticism in the world, which comes from a place of fear and creates darkness, separateness, and negativity.  When we can invite understanding of the shared human condition into our awareness, remembering we are not alone in our pain, then we can open our hearts from a place of love and invite in light, connection, and positivity.  When we experience the pain of failure or loss, we must allow ourselves to acknowledge the pain and not ignore it, yet be mindful at the same time that the powerful emotions that arise with the pain do not define us and, if honored, will move through us.  If we try to ignore the pain, either by stuffing it down or distracting ourselves from it, our body and mind will begin to express the effects through illness. We must embrace that pain, along with such powerful emotions as disappointment, rejection, judgment, fear, anger and sadness, are part of the common human phenomenon.  We are all going to experience these situations and emotions – no one can escape them for long!

I grew up in a family where one of my parents wore their emotions on their sleeve for everyone to see, while the other one learned to compartmentalize their emotions for no one to see.  So when I experienced powerful emotions, I hadn’t learned how to work with them in a way to bring a balanced state of being, until I learned about self-compassion as an adult with the help of kind and patient psychotherapist.  Prior to that point, I bought into the saying that “We are our own worst critic”, judging myself harshly, feeling very alone in my pain, and doing my best to deny or distract myself from my emotions.  It was until I embraced my humanness and those powerful emotions that humans experience and must express that I was able to create space in my heart for compassion.  From that point, I had to learn how to offer myself kindness and care when disappointment, rejection, or grief greeted me.  With practice and patience, I have come to experience offering compassion to myself in painful times as one of the most powerful tools in my self-care tool kit for health, peace, and well-being.

Now the research is validating that self-compassion is a powerful practice for inner peace and health!  If you are interesting in reading more, click on this link below:

The Legacy of Childhood Trauma – Transgenerational Impact!

I had a dear colleague once say to me “We didn’t know what we didn’t know.  When we know, we do better”.  I hear myself repeating this phrase often, because blame and shame are not healthy, period.  Yet, if we don’t look back to reflect on the need for change and growth, then we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.  I have written reflections in the past on the research around the impact of adverse childhood events (ACEs) on the individual and today I want to share the research that shows the impact of such events doesn’t stop with the individual!

Both of my own parents experienced childhood trauma and stressors, which thwarted their emotional growth trajectories, yet they didn’t know that about themselves and neither did society.  However, I definitely sensed that something was off and, as little ones will naturally do, I attempted to fill in the gaps.  Impossible, I know now, but I didn’t know then.  How ironic.

With this new research from UCLA reflecting a strong association between children’s behavioral health problems and their parents’ adversity histories, we now know better.  When our awareness grows around our past, it brings a deeper understanding of our experiences and our normal, natural adaptive responses.  With that deeper understanding, our hearts can begin to heal from events that our conscious minds were not even present to directly witness, yet stuck in our bodies instead.  We can create opportunities for ourselves to challenge those strongly guarded, unspeakable beliefs that there must be something wrong with us or that we are not worthy of acceptance and love, which keep us from a meaningful connection with ourselves and to others.

So, if you currently suffer from symptoms of trauma, such as anxiety and/or depression, and are not aware of experiencing any adverse childhood events yourself, perhaps consider exploring any that your parents might have been subjected to as they grew up.  Please remember that this exploration and what it might uncover is not meant to blame your parents.  It is meant to shine a light on the blame and shame that you might be carrying and that is feeding the self-judgment that is holding you back from a life full of connection, meaning and health.

To read more on this research, click on the button below:

Does the ability to be self-aware of our inner emotional world contribute to our mental health?

In March of last year, I explored alexithymia when reflecting on how this difficulty in identifying, describing, and feeling our emotional world may be a factor in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), specifically how early childhood trauma impacts the developmental ability to integrate thinking and feeling.  I find myself revisiting this topic again due to recent research that suggests alexithymia has a role in anxiety and depression in general, placing an even greater emphasis on the importance of the intelligence of our emotional experiences and the need to promote both self-awareness, and cultural acceptance of emotional expression as a way to improve mental health.

From my own personal experience growing up, I spent a great deal of energy navigating between the emotional overload of one parent (AKA chaos) and the emotional desert (AKA rigidity) of the other.  Initially, rigidity was winning the battle as I did everything that I knew how to in order to suppress my emotions, including disassociating from them altogether and relying heavily on logical intelligence to figure life out.  What rigidity taught me was how to be on my own, embracing the cultural value of independence and discounting the need for human connection (or is it the human need for connection?).  What I came to understand many years later is that you cannot ignore your emotional world for long without severe consequences.

In holding on to my basic right to autonomy so tightly, I kept the door closed to connecting with others, viewing their emotional needs as monsters that would eat away at my independence.  I used to say “I don’t need anyone.  I may want you in my life, but I certainly don’t need you!”  At that point, all I understood was that if I was not independent, I would be judged as co-dependent and needy, which was not acceptable and dangled rejection over my head.  I didn’t know that neither end of the spectrum (from dependent to independent) was ideal for my overall health and well-being.  When I started to learn that humans are part of a complex system that requires interdependence to thrive, I was able to start the journey towards wholeness, unlocking the doors that had been holding my intense, seemingly uncontrollable emotions out to be heard.  The anxiety that I felt for most of my life was because I had rejected those parts of myself that I thought would make me unacceptable in the world.  As I learned to listen to my emotions and the wisdom they had to offer, I was able to accept all parts of my human self and to open my heart to deeper connections with others.

The lessons of both my familial and societal cultures had impaired my emotional self-awareness and my sense of the emotional experiences of others and thus my ability to emotionally connect with others, creating a great deal of anxiety.  With the support of a kind and patient therapist, I was able to allow myself to feel again, learn to reconnect with my emotions by giving them names, listen for understanding as to why those emotions arose, and, perhaps most importantly, that by allowing them to flow through me instead of denying them, learn to value them as much as my logical intelligence bringing more balance and compassion to my experience of the world.

So, how excited was I when I read this research that reflects how experiencing difficulties with identifying, describing and feeling emotions (alexithymia) explains the association between finding the healthy balance of interdependence (autonomy-connectedness) with anxiety and depression as it validated my personal journey.  Prior to this research, evidence showed that the concept of autonomy-connectedness was related to anxiety and depression, yet little was known about the underlying causes.  The results of this research offer guidance to mental health practitioners when supporting people experiencing anxiety and depression, specifically assessing, supporting, and increasing emotional awareness.

If you would like to read more on this research, click on the link below:

What is my purpose and why does seeking it matter?

As a young woman working in the predominately male corporate culture, I struggled to find purpose, or meaning, in the work that I did to reduce the frustration, among many other mixed emotions, that I felt on a daily basis.  In fact, I still have a framed print hanging on a wall in my home from a previous employer reflecting a vision that resonated with me on a deep soul level:  Discovery & Hope.  It was also at this same employer that I experienced what has come to be referred to as ‘sexual misconduct’ today.

When I reflect back on that time of my life, one of the things that stands out for me is how I still managed to get up every morning and feel motivated to go to work.  I really enjoyed what I was doing and was able to remind myself that what I was doing was closely tied to improving the health and well-being of others, which was a personal value of mine.  So, although my work conditions were not mentally and emotionally healthy, creating meaning out of the actual work I was doing seemed to propel me forward in life.

Now, flash forward many years later, including a mid-life career change to better align my personal values and gifts with how I engage in the workforce, what weighs on my mind is the rise in the incidence of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.  I know, through my studies on the normal, natural developmental stages of life that memory loss is to be expected and is a normal part of the aging process.  However, what may not be so well understood is the underlying causes of dementia.  What is coming to light is that chronic stress is associated with damage to a critical part of the brain, specifically the hippocampus, and memory loss and may predict progression from mild cognitive impairment to dementia.

So, when I became aware of recent research suggesting that cultivating a sense of purpose, or meaning in our lives demonstrated a 30% reduction in the risk of developing dementia, it caught my attention!  I don’t believe there is any corresponding research showing such a significant reduction in risk by using any currently available prescription medications when it comes to this age-related disease.  Even more encouraging is that this research suggests that the results are independent of psychological distress, in other words, even if you find yourself in a mentally and emotionally stressful environment, if you are leading a meaningful and goal-driven life, this sense of purpose may be protecting your brain against the risk of developing dementia.

With this new discovery comes hope.  If you feel lost or sense your purpose in life is not so clear, therapy can be a resource.  I know it personally helped me to get in touch with my needs and values, identify false or limiting beliefs I had collected along the way, and gain clarity on aligning my personal priorities and professional goals.  Sometimes we just need to create a sacred place for the exploration to reconnect with our own inner wisdom and ask a fellow journey(wo)men to assist in fine tuning our sense of purpose and meaning to serve as a guide on the journey toward lasting body, mind, and spirit well-being.

If you would like to read more about this emerging research, click on the link below:

My New Year’s Intention – The Time’s Up for Shame!

As I have written about in the past, I am not a big fan of making resolutions for the New Year.  I find that such resolutions often bring with them failure, self-judgment and self-criticism, and ultimately shame when I might step away from such rigid demands on myself.  Sounds more like a recipe for depression than self-improvement if you ask me!  Which made me wonder if that is why many of us don’t bother with setting resolutions and, if we are brave enough to attempt them, why so many of us don’t succeed in such undertakings.  Could it be more about being hard on ourselves versus the unrealistic goals that we tend to set for ourselves at this time of year?  Or is it the shame that holds us back?  Or might it be a combination of both?

So, when I sat in reflection of my self-improvement efforts in 2017 in order to create a vision for myself in 2018 that is more intentional, motivating, and empowering, I found myself drawn so strongly to the #MeToo Movement that is now evolving into the “Time’s Up” campaign!  What felt so powerfully moving to me was the act of shining a light on the shame, that is transferred to someone who experiences one of the most natural, normal, adaptive, human responses to a body-mind breaking situation, so that shame can be given back to the rightful owner, the transgressor.  When we find ourselves in a situation that appears threatening, whether to our physical bodies or to our physical circumstances like our livelihoods, our bodies/brains know what to do to survive without much thought.  The first automatic survival response is to flee and when the mind realizes that might not be possible, it considers fighting for its life.  When the mind suspects it might not survive the fight, it freezes, even sometimes fainting, as a defense mechanism to try and trick the predator into thinking they are dead and leave (them alone).  And, of course, when we freeze – or faint – our voices go silent.

It is only when the “after” (survival) thoughts arrive that we begin the real battle, because we unknowingly took on the trangressor’s shame as our own.  The thoughts get really loud while our voices remain silent, for fear that we won’t be heard and supported and, instead blamed and rejected.  Anxiety and depression present themselves and become the unwelcome visitors in our daily lives and homes.  When we can experience the acceptance and support of others, we can then begin the journey of healing, bringing more acceptance and compassion towards ourselves.  When we can see the shame as not ours and give it back to the one who transferred it to us, we can begin to accept that we are human and we did what we had to do to survive at that time.  And now we can move forward and thrive, by embracing – maybe even expressing gratitude towards – our vulnerability as one of the strongest parts of ourselves, the part that helped us survive to live another day and become a part of a movement and campaign that has the energy to transform the world.

So, my intention is 2018 is be a compassionate support for those brave souls that are able to honor their vulnerable parts by speaking up, identifying and talking about shameful words and behaviors.  I intend to stay connected to the well of compassion for myself as the perfectly flawed human that I am, leading by example, showing others that self-compassion is the first, last, and every step in between on the path of healing.  Connecting to our ability to experience self-compassion while, at the same time, holding shame in the light is the true recipe for individual self-improvement and inner peace as well as contributing to the elevation of the collective consciousness of the world.

If you are interested in reading the recent research showing that self-compassion is more effective than the more established strategies of acceptance and reappraisal in decreasing depression, click on the link below:

Thanksgiving Day Football – Why I will NOT be watching!

I can remember watching football as young as 7 or 8 years of age because it was where we could find our father on Sundays.  My dad would be so engrossed in the games that we could stand behind him and say “Dad, dad, dad, dad, dad, dad” and not get a response.  However, if you said something “Wow, that was a good catch”, he would turn around, look at you, and say something like “Yes, it was”.  So we learned very early on that if we wanted our father’s attention it was best to join him in his world and a lot of his world revolved around sports.

Living in the southern part of New Jersey, I found myself surrounded by Philadelphia Eagles fans, although my father was/is a die-hard New York fan.  I quickly joined the ranks of Eagles fans and it was something that my husband and I had in common.  By 1990, I had joined his Fantasy Football team and my partner and I were the only women in the league.  My interest and knowledge of the sport became a source of pride for me.  That all changed two years ago when I saw the movie Concussion.  If you are a huge football fan, you may want to stop reading now.

In this movie, Will Smith plays the forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu that discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) which is a neurodegenerative brain disease similar to Alzheimer’s disease that arises from repeated head trauma.  He embarks on a mission to raise public awareness about the dangers of football-related head trauma, even with the players wearing helmets and a professional football league rule against helmet-to-helmet contact.  Subsequent research of deceased former high school, college, and professional football players showed that 177 out of 202 players were diagnosed with CTE, with the disease being diagnosed in 110 out of 111 (or 99%!) of the former NFL football players.  This data hurt my mind and body!

CTE can only be diagnosed via autopsy so identifying the signs and symptoms much earlier is vital.  This knowledge made me think about our little ones and their beautiful developing brains.  Then I came across even more recent research looking at the mental and behavioral challenges experienced in adulthood that might be tied back to playing tackle football before the age of twelve.  Researchers questioned 214 men whose only organized sport participation growing up was football.  The results reflect that those who started playing tackle football before the age of twelve were 33% more likely to show signs of depression and about 28% more likely to have behavioral problems in adulthood.  Lead author of this research Dr. Michael Alosco writes “Research on the effects of football on the brain is now at a point where it cannot be ignored.”

Well, I for one no longer am ignoring the data.  After more than 40 years of being a dedicated fan, I have stopped watching football this year.  Instead I have joined the ranks of mental health professionals who work to help relieve the suffering that comes from the symptoms of depression and behavioral challenges and raise the awareness and collective consciousness around the underlying causes of such suffering.  So this Thanksgiving, you will not find me in front of the TV watching a sport that appears to value the almighty buck more than the mind-body health of the players.  I still greatly value team sports and supporting the community it creates and I hope that this research will encourage new ways of playing that dramatically reduce or eliminate the inherent risk of concussions.  Until then, I am learning to enjoy the time I have freed up on my Sundays by connecting with like-minded souls.

If you would like to read more about this research, below are two links.  Click on the first link to read about the research based upon the autopsies.  Click on the second link to read about the research on playing tackle football before the age of twelve.

 

Loneliness – when acceptance and connection are elusive

Why is it that we can be surrounded by people – even our friends and family – and yet still feel alone?  Research has suggested that loneliness is more common than we might think, with 80% of children and 40% of seniors experiencing it.  Loneliness results when we believe if we reveal our true self to others that we will not be accepted and, instead, will be judged negatively.  To avoid the emotional pain of rejection – or lack of acceptance – we either wear masks and pretend to be someone we are not and/or tend to pull back and isolate ourselves, cutting off our life-giving connection to ourselves and others.

As a young person, I often felt different from the people I found myself surrounded by.  People would tell me that I shouldn’t feel the way I felt or that I should pursue a particular career because it was the smart thing to do, implying if I didn’t want to pursue it that I must be dumb.  I spent a great deal of my life trying to fit in, hiding my emotions and behaving in ways that I was told was right.  I remember talking to friends about feeling like I was a square peg trying to fit in a round hole and they would look at me with a funny look on their faces.  I just kept thinking that if I continue to put myself out there I will eventually find my place in the world.  So I kept searching and searching, trying on different masks to see if I could find the “right” one.  Ultimately, my search for acceptance left me exhausted and full of self-doubt!

I found my way into therapy and spent several years on a journey of self-discovery.  This journey took me deep, to the roots of where the seeds of my beliefs came from so I could understand why I was looking for external validation versus allowing the expression of my authentic self.  Once I understood where my beliefs came from and why they developed, I then got the opportunity to question them to decide if I still believed them or if they actually weren’t my beliefs in the first place.  Once I was able to get to a place where I could embrace (yes, accept!) my uniqueness and stop trying to conform just to fit in, I found a greater sense of peace.  This inner peace brought me more ease when interacting with others, reducing the judgment both of myself and others.  And once I got a taste of that felt sense of inner peace, ease, and acceptance, my way of being in the world changed and opened the door for a deeper connection in all of my relationships.  I was able to relatively quickly find my tribe where I no longer had to put on any masks because they appreciated my energetic vibe just where it was.

As a social species, humans grow when we feel accepted, connected, and supported on our journey to remain true to our purpose in life and the expression of our unique talents in the creation of the meaning of our purpose.  If we feel stuck and alone, it may be a sign that we are disconnected from our authentic being, chasing that elusive sense of acceptance from others.  What we might need is some time and space to work on accepting ourselves.  And what research is showing is that reaching out and asking for help through therapy might just be a way to alleviate the pain of loneliness and deepen our felt sense of connection.

If you would like to read some of the research about why increasing our understanding of loneliness matters, click on the link below:

 

Perfectionism – is self-compassion the antidote?

Growing up in a dysfunctional, toxic family environment left deep, ingrained patterns of thinking and acting to avoid the uncomfortable, powerful emotions that boiled just beneath the surface, until my ability to stuff them down and sit on them didn’t work.  It was at those times that the emotions would come out – and come out strong – to the point of overwhelming me and any one near me!  What I came to learn is that I worked very hard – physically, mentally, and emotionally – to be perfect, to do everything right so I would avoid disappointment and feel that elusive sense of acceptance from others.  Now I understand that a common human condition is imperfection and from that deep understanding, I am able to tap into a reservoir of self-compassion to remind myself that we reach perfection when our spirit leaves the human body.

So, as long as I am alive, I have come to accept the fact that I will make mistakes, even some that may hurt others although it is not my intention to do so.  Coming from this place of acceptance that I am not perfect, I am able to not only express forgiveness and kindness to myself, I am more easily able to reach out to others with that same sense of compassion for their humanness.

Don’t get me wrong, getting to this point was not a short trip or an easy one, but it has been well worth the journey.  I was my own worst critic, as many of us are, and would judge myself harshly for a long time.  No matter how much I accomplished, it never felt like it was enough or good enough.  The first step in being kinder to myself was to reflect on why I was so judgmental in the first place.  Well, as you can probably guess, I learned it from my family.  And it wasn’t only from my family, it was a bigger, broader experience of society’s judgment and subtle messages that to be accepted, we must be perfect.  Once I was aware of my inner critic and why and where she grew from, I could then own my suffering that this inner critic created.

In recognizing the suffering, I began to get curious about the emotions that came up, such as fear of being criticized, losing the acceptance of others, guilt, and the sense of being less than and unworthy of the acceptance I so needed.  As I sat with these uncomfortable feelings and explored what messages came from these powerful emotions, I started to ask how they might be trying to serve me in some way.  I learned that feeling guilty was a guide that led me back to my authentic self whenever I might find myself straying away in my thoughts and actions.  Sitting with criticism informed me that it is important to be open to the feedback of others because sometimes we are blind (and deaf) to our behaviors and words, specifically how those behaviors and words might impact another.  I also discovered that when I would be criticized by others, I was simply acting as a mirror to reflect back the other person’s felt sense of inadequacy, so it really wasn’t about me.

When sitting with the fear of losing the acceptance of others, I realized it was because I really feared accepting myself.  Somewhere down the line I was told I was different, because I was so emotional, which was projected on to me as I was “irrational” and thus not acceptable.  When I began to challenge this message and not only accept but embrace my emotional self, I also began to accept the idea that being perfect does not mean you will be accepted by everyone.  I looked at how I comforted others when they experienced making a mistake and tried offering that same comfort and compassion to myself.  With practice, I began to internalize that we innately all try to do our best with the gifts and limitations we have and when I viewed the human experience from this more balanced – logical and emotional – perspective, I felt a deep sense of peace within.

So the journey took time for me to stare my fears in the face, accept my humanity completely, and practice self-compassion when I find myself feeling the pain of suffering.  Now when my fears come up, I no longer try to ignore it and instead invite it in so I can engage in a dialogue with it.  At first, I might feel overwhelmed and I now recognize in these moments that the emotion is coming to me so strong because I may have been ignoring before it when it tried to get my attention more subtly in the past.  When this happens, I might have to sit a little longer and take a couple of extra deep breaths before the conversation can begin in earnest.  As I engage with my powerful emotions, a common theme emerges, that reminds me that I am not alone and that most people would have a similar response, even if they are not ready to admit it.  When I am able to accept I am human and express my gratitude for my emotions as the intelligent guides they are, self-compassion floods in to soothe my momentary suffering and helps to release the grip of judgment and perfectionism.

More and more research is being done to explore the effects of deepening our ability to have self-compassion as it is showing a strong association with mental well-being.  It is being shown to reduce self-criticism, judgment, self-blame and isolation, therefore, increasing acceptance and connection.  Should you be interested in reading more about the results of recent research on the benefits of supporting the development of self-compassion, click on the link below:

 

Transgenerational trauma transmission – What does our childhood experiences tell us about our future health, both body and mind?

The month of May was proclaimed National Mental Health Awareness Month back in 2013 and, as I indicated in my last Talk Therapy reflection in March, I want to share more about the research around adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), the resulting developmental trauma, and the long-term impact on body-mind health.  The intention behind this reflection is to bring more awareness to the underlying causes of dis-ease and, through such awareness, expand our collective capacity for compassion for those suffering from the effects of early childhood trauma.  It is only through more education and awareness that our society will move in the direction of prevention by aligning resources with ways to stop the causes and turn away from just focusing on the treatment of the symptoms.

I also want to mention right up front that it is not my intention to place blame as that would be an attempt to simplify a very complex human condition.  As one of my dear colleagues once said, “We don’t know what we don’t know.  However, when we know better, we do better.”  Therefore, as you read this reflection and maybe read more about the research on this topic, I hope you will come to see, as I did, that our traumatic experiences are not isolated and, in fact, most likely emanate from past generations living through similar experiences without the resources that are available today.

The first ACE study that began in 1995 was conducted in collaboration between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente, a health maintenance organization in southern California.  The participants, over 17,000 patients with health insurance were asked to complete a confidential questionnaire that asked about childhood maltreatment and family dysfunction to identify any relationships between specific ACE and known risk factors, such as smoking and alcohol/drug abuse, for chronic disease.  Since this first study, many studies have been done to validate the original results, using larger and more diverse population samples to assess if the exposure to ACE increases the risk of adult disease and disability. If you are interested in reading more, the CDC website (https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/journal.html) contains a listing of journal articles by topic area.

The original study included seven categories of ACE, including abuse (physical, psychological, sexual), domestic violence (violence against mother), and household dysfunction due to any members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or ever imprisoned.  Future studies expanded the ACE categories to include family dysfunction due to divorce and to track alcohol and other drug abuse separately.

What all of these studies have come to show is that ACEs are more common than any of us would want to know.  These studies have also shown that a majority of ACEs are not experienced in isolation, meaning that if children experienced one ACE they probably experienced more than one ACE, guiding future research to investigate the cumulative impact of multiple childhood traumas on the development of disease.  In addition, the higher the cumulative ACE score, the greater association with many mental, physical, emotional, and social problems, including substance use and abuse.

Expanding our awareness of what constitutes an ACE and the fact that ACEs impact the neurodevelopment of children, disrupting the healthy development of the human nervous system, begins to open our minds and hearts.  Deepening our understanding further that a damaged nervous system may guide children toward unhealthy coping strategies to survive the complex traumas they have lived through, opens the door to compassion, instead of judgment and punishment, by helping us all to realize that these unhealthy behaviors were not a choice these children made, but were normal, natural adaptive responses to inhumane conditions that they found themselves in by no choice of their own.

If you are interested in learning more about how ACEs are being assessed or to determine your own ACE score, click on the ACE SCORE CALCULATOR button below.

If you would like to read a summary of the ACEs study data presented by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), including prevention efforts based upon this growing awareness and understanding of developmental trauma, click on the SAMHSA button below.