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How Brains Are Affected by Abuse

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Recent research in brain science and genetics is showing us that child abuse can have a profound effect on health throughout a person’s life span. And the more types of abuse or dysfunction that you grow up with, the greater your risk for a whole set of poor health outcomes including mental illness, addiction, and even physical disease. In fact, the ten most popular causes of disease and death in the United States are linked to trauma in the early years of life. All of this is based on a landmark study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE study).

In the late 1990s, the CDC asked 17,000 adults whether they suffered any of ten categories of abuse or trauma in their childhoods, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, growing up with domestic violence or a drug addicted parent. They then checked these results against the health of these subjects and found some startling connections.

Most of us have at least one category of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), but those of us with three or more were at significantly increased risk for substance abuse, depression, anxiety, as well as physical ailments like heart disease, cancer and even diabetes.

The mechanism behind this risk is the way the body deals with chronic stress. We’re meant to deal with stress in short amounts, but suffering child abuse and neglect can raise levels of our stress hormones for days, weeks or months at a time, well beyond levels that the body was meant to handle. These stress hormones can in turn damage circuits in a child’s developing brain. These can be the pathways for language and communication, social connection, and even memory itself.

In effect, the brain can literally be structurally changed by the chronic stress associated with abuse and neglect. In addition, abuse can even affect the way our genes are expressed, changing our stress response systems and our ability to process memories. This is known as epigenetics. But there is some good news.

Just as negative experiences can damage a developing brain, neuroplasticity shows us that subsequent positive experiences can help heal them. Activities such as meditation, yoga and mindful breathing can help begin to heal the brain circuits affected by trauma. Used in conjunction with talk therapy and in the context of a consistent, positive helping relationship, people can truly begin to heal from the negative effects of lifelong trauma.

The Safe Center even offers yoga to its clients free of charge as a supplement to the trauma-informed counseling available to them provided by our counselors. Our education department is also hard at work training professionals throughout the field on this important information so they can better understand and work with the clients they are seeing.

For more information on the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, Google search the CDC’s study, or check out ACES TOO HIGH, a site that is helping to spread the word about how brains and bodies are affected by trauma and abuse.

Anthony Zenkus, Director of Education

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