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How do childhood experiences affect us?

Updated: Apr 7

Personal Journey into the Mind-Body Connection


How childhood experiences affect us?

My personal experience with chronic pain since early life, combined with an early life story that often left people speechless, Ignited a sense of curiosity and exploration in me at an early age. Over the past ten years, after a therapy process that suddenly brought a deep sense of integration after years of feeling fragmented in therapeutic experiences.

It wasn't solely about my cognitive understanding of my childhood experiences and my current struggles, as I had experienced many times in talk therapies.


My body and physicality shifted. childhood trauma was safely addressed, and my chronic pain, which had persisted for 15 years, was nearly gone. A lot of my felt sense and what I perceived as struggles shifted, turning into beautiful guidelines.

And the way I related to and connected with others changed.


Could these be correlated?


Intuitively, I always believed in the body-mind connection, but concretely, I didn't know how.

This led me to delve into a decade of study,

to comprehend with my mind what my body had experienced, and sense then what I continue to experience in my clinical work.

In my own journey and in this article I went through different disciplines and fields of knowledge.

From Myofascia bodywork, structural work, nervous system health, somatic psychology, neuroscience and the recent research in these fields.

And the new opportunity, in my experience, in the integration between them.


Childhood Experiences and Their Impact


The field of psychology has explored for many decades now the impact of these early years' experiences on our development. Many adults can agree that some experiences, even 30 years after, have stayed with them and shape their life experience even today after all these years.

However, the focus of the field was, for many years, on pathologies and earned a reputation that it does not relevant to all humans.



Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study Overview


The first research that investigated and found the correlation between childhood abuse and neglect and household challenges and later-life health and well-being is called the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study.

ACEs Study overview

"The original ACE study was conducted at Kaiser Permanente from 1995 to 1997, with two waves of data collection. Over 17,000 Health Maintenance Organization members from Southern California receiving physical exams completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences and current health status and behaviours.




Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are categorized into three groups: abuse, neglect, and household challenges. Each category is further divided into multiple subcategories."

The ACEs study is based on questions that provide a score.

The higher the score, the higher the chance of health and mental health issues.

All ACE questions refer to the respondent's first 18 years of life.


Abuse:

  • Emotional abuse: A parent, stepparent, or adult living in your home swore at you, insulted you, put you down, or acted in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt.

  • Physical abuse: A parent, stepparent, or adult living in your home pushed, grabbed, slapped, threw something at you, or hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured.

  • Sexual abuse: An adult, relative, family friend, or stranger who was at least 5 years older than you ever touched or fondled your body in a sexual way, made you touch his/her body in a sexual way, or attempted to have any type of sexual intercourse with you.

Household Challenges:

  • Mother treated violently: Your mother or stepmother was pushed, grabbed, slapped, had something thrown at her, kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, hit with something hard, repeatedly hit for over at least a few minutes, or ever threatened or hurt by a knife or gun by your father (or stepfather) or mother's boyfriend.

  • Substance abuse in the household: A household member was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or a household member used street drugs.

  • Mental illness in the household: A household member was depressed or mentally ill, or a household member attempted suicide.

  • Parental separation or divorce: Your parents were ever separated or divorced.

  • Incarcerated household member: A household member went to prison.


ACEs Study overview
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Neglect:

  • Emotional neglect: Someone in your family never or rarely helped you feel important or special, you never or rarely felt loved, people in your family never or rarely looked out for each other and felt close to each other, or your family was never or rarely a source of strength and support.

  • Physical neglect: There was never or rarely someone to take care of you, protect you, or take you to the doctor if you needed it. You didn't have enough to eat, and your parents were too drunk or too high to take care of you, or you had to wear dirty clothes. ( Source: the CDC website.)


The umbrella of the ACEs study is wide, and many of us can find ourselves in one way or another under it. Yet, the understanding of trauma has grown in the past 20 years, and we now know that events can vary. Just as we knew before that some people would come out of a war zone with PTSD symptoms and some would not, we now understand that the symptoms may look and be experienced very differently. What we once thought was unique to extreme events of war, abuse, and neglect has turned, through the latest research, into a more inclusive understanding that trauma is beyond the event of what happened and how tragic or not it's perceived by us. It's more focused on the neurophysiological response and experience of the individual in the event.


"Trauma is not what happens to you;

trauma is what happens inside you as a result of what happens to you."

- Dr. Gabor Mate


"It's like my body has its own brain," she told me.

"It kind of does," I replied.

A. came to me in her mid-50s, diagnosed with Fibromyalgia, after endless searches for a solution to her condition and to restore her well-being. With a focus on her physical symptoms, we started to explore her current and past stressors and life experiences. At one point, she told me with tears,

"I didn't just get a new body; I got a new me."


Trauma's Neurophysiological Impact


So what is it that happens to us neurophysiologically when we experience trauma?

Whenever our system experience high stress situation to it's developmental stage, our autonomic nervous system is activated into high stress-survival response, and adrenaline and cortisol are released in big amounts, and activate ancient part of our brain that’s called Amygdala.

These drive our body into an automatic response of fight/flight if we have the option,

and if not, into freeze and shut down.

ACEs Study overview
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

These responses are not conscious; we don't choose them. They are triggered by our autonomic nervous system to keep us safe, to avoid perceived threats, in specific moments.

Physical symptoms that can occur, depending on our autonomic response, include a raised or low heartbeat, shorter breath, sweating, and either an overly activated or completely slowed-down digestion system. We may feel anxious, stressed, triggered, or numb.

We know that long periods of high activation in our autonomic nervous system and high, prolonged doses of adrenaline and cortisol weaken our immune system and make us more vulnerable to sickness and pain.


The Polyvagal Theory and Emotional Regulation


In 2011, Stephen Porges Ph.D. introduced The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). His groundbreaking research laid the foundation for many existing theories and continued to grow in the next 12 years into Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies, co-authored with Deb Dana (Norton).

His research, while exploring these responses in the autonomic nervous system and the regulation process, also focuses on our need and the role of attachment and connection in the development of self-regulation ability. "Polyvagal theory takes its name from the vagus, a cranial nerve that forms the primary component of the parasympathetic nervous system. The traditional view of the autonomic nervous system presents a two-part system: the sympathetic nervous system, which is more activating ("fight or flight"), and the parasympathetic nervous system, which supports health, growth, and restoration ("rest and digest"). Polyvagal theory identifies a third type of nervous system response – the 'social engagement system,' a hybrid state of activation and calming that plays a role in our ability to socially engage (or not).

Polyvagal theory views the parasympathetic nervous system as being split into two distinct branches: a "ventral vagal system" which supports social engagement, and a "dorsal vagal system" which supports immobilization behaviors, both "rest and digest" and defensive immobilization or "shutdown." Polyvagal theory was introduced by behavioral neuroscientist, Stephen W. Porges, in his presidential address to the Society of Psychophysiological Research in Atlanta, Georgia on October 8, 1994."


The connections in our lives, specially in early childhood but also throughout our lives, play a huge role in our system regulation or disregulation in their absence.


"Safety is not the absence of threat; it is the presence of connection."

- Dr. Gabor Mate


G. reached out to me in his mid-60s with panic attacks and chronic tension. After multiple hospital visits with the belief that he was having a heart attack, he shared about his childhood and relationship with his parents during our work together. It was characterised by high demands for achievements, judgment, and a lack of emotional connection. We learned how his work continued to create high-stress experiences for him, triggering his stress response and adverse childhood experiences.


The Brain's Developmental Stages and Attachment


The developmental stage and age of the child also plays a significant role here.

The ACEs study looks at a span of 10 years, while the Danish Bodynamic system of somatic psychology looks at different stages of development that extend from the second trimester to puberty and beyond. These stages involve various themes of development, different stages of brain development, and the required connection and attunement around them. Therefore, the effects of events during different stages of development would vary. Lisabeth Marcher, the founder of the Danish system, talked about the reality of developmental traumas and their impact on our body and mind back in the 80s.

This is connected with our brain's state of development and the capacity of our system and of our caregivers system. For example, the perceived threat to a newborn can be something as simple as the sense of hunger and the lack of connection they are so dependent on for survival.

Our brain's capacity grows through development and attuned connection.

Dr. Dan Siegel, in his human brain hand model, talks about the three layers:

  1. Brain stem

  2. Limbic brain

  3. Cortex

The brain stem, the lowest and oldest part of our brain, also known as the reptile brain, is connected through the spinal cord to our body. It takes information from our body and regulates functions like breathing, digestion, and heart function. Additionally, it has a set of regions that trigger the fight/flight/freeze and faint responses when we feel threatened, creating this reactive state.

The brain stem is the only part fully available to us at birth and is associated with sensing experiences.


The limbic brain, also known as the mammalian brain, works alongside the brain stem to create emotions in coordination with the body. It also motivates and drives our behaviour, giving meaning to things, both good and bad. The limbic brain is connected with our attachment experience as mammals, where we connect with caregivers and can be soothed by them – not just in childhood but throughout our lifespan. This area develops throughout childhood and is all about feelings.


The cortex works closely with the limbic region and creates maps from information – sounds that come through the ears, sights that come through the eyes. It creates associations from thoughts. The frontal area of the cortex, called the frontal cortex, has the ability to create integration between these different parts of our brain: the brain stem, limbic brain, cortex, body, and even the social world together. The frontal cortex is like the lid of a pot; it can either integrate and create harmony and connectivity or disintegrate and create a sense of fragmentation, rigidity, and chaos.


These parts are interconnected, impacted, and dependent on each other. We know that our survival brain stem responses create shutdown in our cortex and frontal cortex, limiting our cognition in times of high stress.


So what is the meaning of the high activation of this system throughout our childhood, through these adverse childhood experiences, at a time when our brain is still developing? Our brain reach maturity and some ability for self regulation only at age 25. Iv'e heard few times teachers say on this information with a smile: "I'm 58 and I'm still waiting."


This understanding expands the lens through which we look and sheds light on experiences and symptoms that were not included before. In my personal opinion, it also illuminates fields of birth, parenthood and education that I hope will incorporate more for the sake of our children.

The understanding of safety, threat, regulation, emotions, attachment and connections, verbal and non-verbal communication, and the effect of caregivers' trauma and stress response physiology on a child.


So, how are all these connected?


Dr. Dan Siegel, in one of his teachings, shares about a new set of studies called the connectome studies. These studies show how the areas of the brain that are differentiated can become interconnected. Research shows that the best prediction of well-being is how interconnected our connectome is.


"The more we relate and connect to different parts of our brain and our being –

sensing, feeling, thinking – the more we promote integration." Dr. Dan Siegel


Take a moment to reflect: which part is more present in your daily life?

Which one is unknown or familiar to you?


Reconnecting with the Body


Although I started my professional journey almost 20 years ago in psychology and psychotherapy,

I dropped it almost completely some years later because of this sense of fragmentation.

I had been a mover all my life, and in the midst of this highly cognitive focus, 20 years ago in the field, I missed the body. But my movement was impacted by my chronic pain many times I was looking for solutions. after long way and many different trails, I got to the Myofascial system.

The fascia system is a web-like tissue in our body that connects everything to everything.

Every muscle, every cell, and every organ has a wrap of tissue around it, creating a network within and through it. It contains millions of nerve endings and has a quality of liquidity, which, in many chronic conditions, becomes stiff, rigid, and dry as a compensatory response. For example, when we have a wound that requires stitches, the tissue rebuilds itself with scar tissue, which doesn't have the same sensing capacity and is stiffer and more rigid.

What I find fascinating is that the fascia's second name is "connective tissue." It connects everything within our bodies. When there is trauma or chronic pain, or even just tension in the tissue, it loses the quality of liquidity that makes it connective and, in my opinion, integrated, similar to Dr. Dan Siegel's theory on brain integration or disintegration states.

In my personal and professional experience, it also loses its sensibility.

One of my most loved opportunities to learn about the Myofascial system was through Dr. Robert Schleip, whose recent research delves into the interconnectivity of the Myofascial system with the autonomic nervous system and our emotional and survival responses.

His growing body of research provides factual support for my experiences,

both personal and those of my clients.

In one of his studies, Dr. Schleip demonstrated how the fascia in specific areas of the shoulders changed in patients with depression. In another, he showed how the fascia reacts and is impacted by the autonomic nervous system and our emotions.


"Trauma is much more than a story about something that happened long ago. The emotions and physical sensations that were imprinted during the trauma are experienced not as memories but as disruptive physical reactions in the present." - Dr. Bessel van der Kolk


L. came to me at the end of his 40s with chronic stiffness and an awareness of the correlation between his physical experience and his lack of emotional expression.

"I didn't cry for 20 years," he told me at the beginning of our work together.

Through our body-focused work, he revisited his limbic brain and emotions.

His body stiffness shifted, but more than that, the shift and integration extended to his wife and children and the way he related to them.



Connection

"Integration doesn't just happen within.

It happens in our connections as well."

- Dr. Dan Siegel


One fascinating factor that often emerges from clients is the shifts in their relationships. While these are not the direct themes I work with, we are social beings, and when we become more integrated in our brains and bodies, it reflects in the way we relate to others. In my work that really touched me, time and time again. It brought this realisation and connection’s that arise through our bodies, through our direct work with our bodies to our mammalian need of connection, and to our early life experiences that took us away from it.


Embracing Our Mammalian Heritage


"The genes and predispositions of today's humans are almost identical to those of prehistoric humans and are adapted for life in small groups where closeness, keeping together, and harmony are vitally important. it is, therefore, necessary to discuss how changes in our living conditions affect modern man's prospects for closeness and physical touch. What is the impact of the modern western lifestyle- with its views of the body and soul being separated - when it comes to satisfying the original need for


closeness? today, the ideal to a large extent is to 'be' someone rather than 'belonging' to something.

To manage on your own has become a virtue instead of a forced necessity.

Mammalian heritage

In our modern society, there is a strong reliance on the rational and the intellectual. We feel that we can control our lives and our well-being through conscious through processes and common sense. But our lives are not governed only by our conscious and rational thoughts. Beyond these, there is an innate knowledge that helps us deal with life, and in particular with our social relationships. These essentially instinctive abilities have a broader influence in the lives of other mammals compared to humans, but they are included as part of our mammalian heritage and affect us more than we think."

Kerstine Unvas Moberg, M.D., Ph.D.


My clinical work with chronic conditions started with my own experience with chronic pain.

In my personal experience and also in the experiences I had with my clients,

pain or symptoms always led to some form of trauma or adverse childhood experience.

It doesn't mean that every trauma or childhood experience would lead to a chronic condition, physically or mentally. Our coping mechanisms are wide, and there are more influencers in play.

But the potential, in my experience and opinion, is like a seed lying there within.


There are many things in our western culture that we perceive as "age-appropriate" symptoms and pains, the back pain, the weakness or stiffness of our bodies, the sickness.

They all too often the response of our immune system to our nervous system chronic, hidden stress. The good news is that we have a way back, and it starts by coming slowly and safely back to good connection with our bodies.


Pain is multilayered experience, and so does other chronic symptoms and illnesses.

If you or your clients found yourself stuck in loops of chronic pain or other symptoms, there might be more layers within this experience for you to revel and address.

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