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Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Disease.

by Eunice Minford

This paper by Vincent Felitti describes the effect of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) on adult disease. The ACE study is a long-term in-depth analysis of over 17,000 adult Americans looking at their current health status and the relationship to adverse childhood experiences.

There is a long list of publications which have detailed various associations between ACE and adult conditions like alcoholism, depression, headaches, liver disease, autoimmune disease, obesity, lung cancer and COPD. Felitti states that 'much of what is recognised as common in adult medicine is the result of what is not recognised in childhood.' Furthermore, the ACE study shows a powerful relationship between emotional experiences in childhood and mental and physical wellbeing as adults. It documents the conversion of traumatic emotional childhood experiences into organic disease in adult life.

This study and the multiple papers and outcomes produced from it give weight to the understanding that our biography becomes our biology. In other words, life experiences can and do influence health and wellbeing much more than we have previously realised. It also affirms that the emotions and emotional experiences have a significant role to play in the manifestation of illness and disease and this can occur over a long period of time. Childhood events that might be seemingly forgotten or dealt with are often still internal festering wounds wreaking havoc on the mental and physical wellbeing of an individual over time.

Whilst the internal mechanisms have yet to be fully elucidated, the fields of psychoneuroimmunology(PNI)  and psychosomatic medicine and epigenetics are beginning to do just that. PNI shows how emotions/thoughts can affect the immune system, leading to inflammation and inflammation is a key process in the aetiology of many diseases, with a list that seems to be ever-increasing. In addition to the obvious inflammatory conditions like arthritis, colitis, cystitis, or any -itis, inflammation is also indicated in the aetiology of depression, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Epigenetics is a field that looks at how the expression of genes can be affected by internal and external environmental factors and some preliminary work in prostate cancer by Dean Ornish has shown favourable epigenetic changes by altering diet and lifestyle. 

Esoterically and energetically, the emotions are known to be harming to one's physical and mental wellbeing and these studies are providing the research evidence that supports this understanding. Medicine often looks at the external symptoms and disease and works backward to find out how it arose. The esoteric comes from a different perspective of knowing what the true nature of the body is energetically, (love) and then identifying what is not that that has resulted in the physical disease. The body lives all our experiences, it is with us in every moment of every day, everything we do with and to the body affects the body energetically - there is no escape from that. When we are aggressive, rough, hard, angry, full of rage etc all of that is detrimental to the body and if persistent over time will lead to illness and disease or other forms of suffering. However, there is also a way to live that engenders true wellbeing and vitality, being self-caring and gentle with oneself and all others. The more we take true care of the body in every activity, from eating, sleeping, working, exercise etc then that will pay rewards in our physical health and wellbeing.

So what is it that prevents us from taking care of ourselves? The ACE study looked at quite gross examples of abuse and neglect in their different categories. It looked at 8 categories of childhood abuse and household dysfunction. The abuse categories were recurrent physical and recurrent emotional abuse and sexual abuse. The categories of household dysfunction were growing up in a household where someone was in prison; where the mother was treated violently; in presence of alcoholic or drug user; where someone was chronically depressed, mentally ill or suicidal and where one parent was lost to the child regardless of cause. The higher the number of ACE events the greater the impact on adult disease in later life. 

However, from an esoteric perspective, it is not just gross examples of abuse and neglect that are detrimental. When one realises and knows the stupendous love that we come from and which we are, it becomes obvious how much more seemingly minor events can still have significant detrimental consequences on one's long term physical health and wellbeing. It is part and parcel of the universal human condition that we do not get met and seen for the love that we are, that we all experience to one degree or another events that are not loving even if they are not what many would consider abusive. But perhaps we need to re-look at what we consider abusive? We are used to reserving that word for extremes of behaviour, that no-one would dispute are abusive. However, from an energetic perspective, anything that is not loving is harming energetically whether we realise it or not and perhaps we need to lower the bar on what is considered abusive so that we can call it out and say no, that behaviour is not acceptable. Ultimately it is a lack of love for oneself that prevents one from taking true care of oneself. As a consequence of ACE we develop misbeliefs about ourselves that we are not good enough, not worthy, not lovable etc etc and these feed a multitude of behaviours that can range from poisoning oneself with alcohol to striving to be the top in the field so as not to feel the inner emptiness, worthlessness and discontent. 

I use to be dismissive of people who undertook self-development work, with the arrogant attitude of 'just get on with it and there's no need for all that naval gazing.' I would have dismissed out of hand the effect of emotions and childhood experiences on adult disease later in life - attributing it to the virus, the gene, the toxin or some external factor. And I would have guffawed loudly at the idea that illness and disease is in some way related to a lack of love for oneself - as I can imagine many in the medical profession would also do. However, life has taught me otherwise and humbled my arrogance. I have no doubt my own self-destructive behaviours arose out of the lack of love for myself following ACE, yet I don't tick many of the boxes. Another way of expressing that is that they arose out of the deep self-loathing and disregard for myself following ACE. It is great to have the ACE study and the results it brings demonstrating the links between adverse emotional childhood experiences and adult disease in later life. However, for me there is much more to be uncovered in this field. As alluded to this does not just apply to gross examples of abuse, but to all kinds of what might be called every-day events that are not loving, that affect the being detrimentally. 

However, I have since come to know that despite any ACE, healing is possible by re-connecting to the love that lives within, where it is known that no trauma or abuse of any kind can impact, destroy or affect that love. By living from that love, I have become self-caring instead of self-destructive, self-loving instead of self-abusive. It continues to be a daily work in progress as I continue to deepen for myself what it really means to be self-caring. Of course in order to truly care for another, one must be able to care for oneself if any true care is to be provided. So the more I deepen the care for myself, the more I am able to care for others.

The re-introduction of love (which is not the same as emotional love) back into medicine has predictably a long road ahead of it. However, given the current health dilemmas around the world, with the rise in obesity, diabetes, mental ill health to name a few, despite all that modern medicine and science has to offer, must surely get people thinking - what is missing?? What is missing from our understanding of the human person with respect to illness and  disease, that were it not missing, everything would be seen and understood differently?

That missing ingredient is Love - as the saying goes, 'don't knock it 'til you've tried it.' Or perhaps to all those who would knock it, according to Einstein, "condemnation without investigation is the height of ignorance"!
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