How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime | Nadine Burke Harris

Updated : Nov 09, 2019 in Articles

How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime | Nadine Burke Harris


In the mid-’90s, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente discovered an exposure
that dramatically increased the risk for seven out of 10 of the leading
causes of death in the United States. In high doses, it affects
brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA
is read and transcribed. Folks who are exposed in very high doses have triple the lifetime risk
of heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year difference
in life expectancy. And yet, doctors today are not trained
in routine screening or treatment. Now, the exposure I’m talking about is
not a pesticide or a packaging chemical. It’s childhood trauma. Okay. What kind of trauma
am I talking about here? I’m not talking about failing a test
or losing a basketball game. I am talking about threats
that are so severe or pervasive that they literally get under our skin
and change our physiology: things like abuse or neglect, or growing up with a parent
who struggles with mental illness or substance dependence. Now, for a long time, I viewed these things in the way
I was trained to view them, either as a social problem —
refer to social services — or as a mental health problem —
refer to mental health services. And then something happened
to make me rethink my entire approach. When I finished my residency, I wanted to go someplace
where I felt really needed, someplace where I could make a difference. So I came to work for
California Pacific Medical Center, one of the best private hospitals
in Northern California, and together, we opened a clinic
in Bayview-Hunters Point, one of the poorest, most underserved
neighborhoods in San Francisco. Now, prior to that point, there had been only
one pediatrician in all of Bayview to serve more than 10,000 children, so we hung a shingle, and we were able
to provide top-quality care regardless of ability to pay. It was so cool. We targeted
the typical health disparities: access to care, immunization rates,
asthma hospitalization rates, and we hit all of our numbers. We felt very proud of ourselves. But then I started noticing
a disturbing trend. A lot of kids were being
referred to me for ADHD, or Attention Deficit
Hyperactivity Disorder, but when I actually did
a thorough history and physical, what I found was that
for most of my patients, I couldn’t make a diagnosis of ADHD. Most of the kids I was seeing
had experienced such severe trauma that it felt like something else
was going on. Somehow I was missing something important. Now, before I did my residency,
I did a master’s degree in public health, and one of the things that they teach you
in public health school is that if you’re a doctor and you see 100 kids
that all drink from the same well, and 98 of them develop diarrhea, you can go ahead
and write that prescription for dose after dose
after dose of antibiotics, or you can walk over and say,
“What the hell is in this well?” So I began reading everything that
I could get my hands on about how exposure to adversity affects the developing brains
and bodies of children. And then one day,
my colleague walked into my office, and he said, “Dr. Burke,
have you seen this?” In his hand was a copy
of a research study called the Adverse Childhood
Experiences Study. That day changed my clinical practice
and ultimately my career. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study is something that everybody
needs to know about. It was done by Dr. Vince Felitti at Kaiser
and Dr. Bob Anda at the CDC, and together, they asked 17,500 adults
about their history of exposure to what they called “adverse
childhood experiences,” or ACEs. Those include physical, emotional,
or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness,
substance dependence, incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence. For every yes, you would get
a point on your ACE score. And then what they did was they correlated these ACE scores
against health outcomes. What they found was striking. Two things: Number one, ACEs are incredibly common. Sixty-seven percent of the population
had at least one ACE, and 12.6 percent, one in eight,
had four or more ACEs. The second thing that they found was that there was
a dose-response relationship between ACEs and health outcomes: the higher your ACE score,
the worse your health outcomes. For a person with an ACE score
of four or more, their relative risk of chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease was two and a half times that
of someone with an ACE score of zero. For hepatitis, it was also
two and a half times. For depression, it was
four and a half times. For suicidality, it was 12 times. A person with an ACE score
of seven or more had triple the lifetime risk
of lung cancer and three and a half times the risk
of ischemic heart disease, the number one killer
in the United States of America. Well, of course this makes sense. Some people looked at this data
and they said, “Come on. You have a rough childhood,
you’re more likely to drink and smoke and do all these things
that are going to ruin your health. This isn’t science.
This is just bad behavior.” It turns out this is exactly
where the science comes in. We now understand
better than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains
and bodies of children. It affects areas like
the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure and reward
center of the brain that is implicated
in substance dependence. It inhibits the prefrontal cortex, which is necessary for impulse control
and executive function, a critical area for learning. And on MRI scans, we see measurable differences
in the amygdala, the brain’s fear response center. So there are real neurologic reasons why folks exposed
to high doses of adversity are more likely to engage
in high-risk behavior, and that’s important to know. But it turns out that even if you don’t
engage in any high-risk behavior, you’re still more likely
to develop heart disease or cancer. The reason for this has to do with
the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, the brain’s and body’s
stress response system that governs our fight-or-flight response. How does it work? Well, imagine you’re walking
in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus
sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal
to your adrenal gland that says, “Release stress hormones!
Adrenaline! Cortisol!” And so your heart starts to pound, Your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either
fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest
and there’s a bear. (Laughter) But the problem is what happens
when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated
over and over and over again, and it goes from being
adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging. Children are especially sensitive
to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies
are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect
brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA
is read and transcribed. So for me, this information
threw my old training out the window, because when we understand
the mechanism of a disease, when we know not only
which pathways are disrupted, but how, then as doctors, it is our job
to use this science for prevention and treatment. That’s what we do. So in San Francisco, we created
the Center for Youth Wellness to prevent, screen and heal the impacts
of ACEs and toxic stress. We started simply with routine screening
of every one of our kids at their regular physical, because I know that if my patient
has an ACE score of 4, she’s two and a half times as likely
to develop hepatitis or COPD, she’s four and half times as likely
to become depressed, and she’s 12 times as likely
to attempt to take her own life as my patient with zero ACEs. I know that when she’s in my exam room. For our patients who do screen positive, we have a multidisciplinary treatment team
that works to reduce the dose of adversity and treat symptoms using best practices,
including home visits, care coordination, mental health care, nutrition, holistic interventions, and yes,
medication when necessary. But we also educate parents
about the impacts of ACEs and toxic stress the same way you would for covering
electrical outlets, or lead poisoning, and we tailor the care
of our asthmatics and our diabetics in a way that recognizes that they may
need more aggressive treatment, given the changes to their hormonal
and immune systems. So the other thing that happens
when you understand this science is that you want to shout it
from the rooftops, because this isn’t just an issue
for kids in Bayview. I figured the minute
that everybody else heard about this, it would be routine screening,
multi-disciplinary treatment teams, and it would be a race to the most
effective clinical treatment protocols. Yeah. That did not happen. And that was a huge learning for me. What I had thought of as simply
best clinical practice I now understand to be a movement. In the words of Dr. Robert Block, the former President
of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest
unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” And for a lot of people,
that’s a terrifying prospect. The scope and scale of the problem
seems so large that it feels overwhelming to think about how we might approach it. But for me, that’s actually
where the hopes lies, because when we have the right framework, when we recognize this to be
a public health crisis, then we can begin to use the right
tool kit to come up with solutions. From tobacco to lead poisoning
to HIV/AIDS, the United States actually has
quite a strong track record with addressing public health problems, but replicating those successes
with ACEs and toxic stress is going to take determination
and commitment, and when I look at what
our nation’s response has been so far, I wonder, why haven’t we taken this more seriously? You know, at first I thought
that we marginalized the issue because it doesn’t apply to us. That’s an issue for those kids
in those neighborhoods. Which is weird, because the data
doesn’t bear that out. The original ACEs study
was done in a population that was 70 percent Caucasian, 70 percent college-educated. But then, the more I talked to folks, I’m beginning to think that maybe
I had it completely backwards. If I were to ask
how many people in this room grew up with a family member
who suffered from mental illness, I bet a few hands would go up. And then if I were to ask how many folks
had a parent who maybe drank too much, or who really believed that
if you spare the rod, you spoil the child, I bet a few more hands would go up. Even in this room, this is an issue
that touches many of us, and I am beginning to believe
that we marginalize the issue because it does apply to us. Maybe it’s easier to see
in other zip codes because we don’t want to look at it. We’d rather be sick. Fortunately, scientific advances
and, frankly, economic realities make that option less viable every day. The science is clear: Early adversity dramatically affects
health across a lifetime. Today, we are beginning to understand
how to interrupt the progression from early adversity
to disease and early death, and 30 years from now, the child who has a high ACE score and whose behavioral symptoms
go unrecognized, whose asthma management
is not connected, and who goes on to develop
high blood pressure and early heart disease or cancer will be just as anomalous
as a six-month mortality from HIV/AIDS. People will look at that situation
and say, “What the heck happened there?” This is treatable. This is beatable. The single most important thing
that we need today is the courage to look
this problem in the face and say, this is real
and this is all of us. I believe that we are the movement. Thank you. (Applause)

100 Comments

  • I love this Talk. Oftentimes people just think that it's a only a problem with a time expiration and to be able to link this is brilliant.

  • And still anyone can have and raise a child, but we must have a license to do anything else including mental health care to treat what the parents or others have done to the child…. Why is parenting not required to be educated at least?

  • I had all 3 ace. I'm in good health. I went to a physicist at 27. After that I saw thing how they are and live a good life now.

  • Meh. Think most folk know that childhood trauma leads to delinquency, social problems, crime, addictions, mental health difficulties, poor health and so on – for some – to address the issue we need to end poverty. What she doesn't say is that trauma can also enrich a person; that the brain holds the potential to heal until old age before it starts to lose elasticity; that trauma is pervasive in mental health and poor health, it's not purely childhood trauma; that no one can avoid trauma, we all experience it at some point – it is a part of life and knowing what it is to human. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger. Yes it makes childhood and adolescence tough for sure – but when the individual 'seeks' the right help and support positive growth and development occurs.

  • I was bullied in elementary school but it got worst in 5th grade so I basically was tramatized by it and now when my friends or anyone wants me to go out in the world do stuff all I say is "I'm not ready" or "I don't feel like it, maybe later" I stay in my room almost every single day because I have this thing inside my mind saying that they are talking about me and even if I do go when I do and I'm around a lot of people I tend to zone out, get dizzy, and feel terrible and it's because having the thought of people talking about me makes me feel insecure about myself

  • Absolutely amazing! My abuse has ruined the my life with illness. Something serious needs to be done! In England there is no help, as a result I am Agoraphobic for twenty six years. Only the expects can help .

  • After 25 years of dysfunction, I've finally realized I was abused by my father as a very, very young child. He was psychopathic, and Ive been suffering the consequences my entire life. After having been diagnosed with basically every mental disorder, I have recently been diagnosed with DID, or dissociative identity disorder. My mom told me one of her memories of me when i was 3 was that i said, "Mommy, I hear voices!"
    She never thought anything of it. My mom was innocent, but entirely unaware of any of the abuse, or the latter. Please, please be aware of any type of abuse, be it involuntary or not. I've suffered, and suffer every single day because of what happen to me. Question yourself, question your family, because you can save someones life.

  • I'm 34 and battling childhood traumas (plus traumas in my adult life)…. I have my own daughters now. I am trying to forgive those who've hurt me (forgiveness is for me to bring peace) because they too suffered from childhood trauma. Not saying it was right but now as a parent I see some things within myself that are coming forth that I've NEVER experienced until after giving birth. I choose to break the cycle and bring love into not only my two daughter's lives but my own. I have to be the parent and parent figure I never had. I hope all who are affected find peace and healing. ❤️💕 💕

  • Very inspiring talk! Would love to see the conversation continue with common objections to this kind of intervention. A few off the top of my head might include denial and not wanting to betray family dynamics to the medical/public sphere.

  • I’ve always said, show me a child diagnosed with adhd and I’ll show you a negligent emotionally unavailable parent

  • Who is this woman? We seem to forget VERY FEW doctors the Most High has graced the medical fields with! Fascinating. On top of it, you can tell she CARES! That is the secret ingredient in the Sauce, PASSION!

  • I'm in my 50's, both my parents experienced mental illness and my mother made multiple suicide attempts. The first one I witnessed when I was 5 yo. Not one adult reached out to talk to me about the event except to tell me that she accidentally swallowed poison instead of medicine. It was as if I was a puppy that didn't think or understand feelings. I never had counseling, a mentor, etc. What was worse than the childhood trauma is that everyone assumed I was fine because that is what was easier for them. When adults are uncomfortable with situations, they do their best to ignore and move on. But only recently have I begun to see the impact all of it. My childhood trauma created dysfunction that affected my own parenting, no matter how much I tried not repeating language and behaviors, I developed my own

  • Just part of the NWO. Pure evil. They want the children. Vaccines destroy brains and immune systems – becoming lifetime customers of Pharma

  • I was diagnosed with renal kidney cancer at age 15 I now have one kidney. My mom was and still is physically mentally and emotionally abusive. My dad was always emotionally unavailable and barely paid attention to me before he left and never came back at age 13.

  • Also understand each child will respond differently. This was a great talk, but you just increased my anxiety so much, and now feel more hopeless. You see, I’m in my 50’s, and while my parents did the best they could at the time and under the circumstances they were under, schools in the 60’s were not easy if you struggled with adhd. What angers me is, I understand what your saying, but I can’t change the past. One of the other responders said mandatory classes for parents, but you better know who your trusting. See, if you struggled, then there has to be a solution. Perhaps Spend half off the talk showing how to look ahead rather than behind.

  • I grew up in a terrible environment. I vividly remember a gnawing stomachache every Friday afternoon knowing I had to go to that environment for the entire weekend. I remember people remarking to me about how I appeared withdrawn and sick. No one intervened. I was in this situation until I moved out at 19. I ended up with breast cancer at 35 and a slew of health problems. I truly believe my childhood shaped my health. For some reason I had the will to overcome it, perhaps a trait from my childhood trauma. I make it a point to make sure my kids have a stable, loving and understanding environment to live in so they can be stable, healthy adults.

  • What if you had to face the bear at school and then come home and face it there too. I spent a great deal of my childhood afraid. That's why I love horror movies. They are like comedies compared to wondering if your parent decided this was the night they were going to kill you

  • Finally someone who understands 🖤 and has integrity. You are a very valuable person. May you win this fight. For us all. 🖤💕

  • my mom was always working, was too tired for me, didnt encourage or uplift me and my future wasnt talked about…is that neglect?

  • Reading comments. I don’t think she is talking about just bad parenting. She talking about those of us who walked on egg shells daily , not sure we would survive the night ,mother beaten and broken ,children beaten and abused ,drug and alcohol abuse . I’m almost 50 mow ,parents long dead but I’m just starting to understand why I do the things I do. I’m a runner. Lol. If things get ugly ,I’m out. My children. I was WAYYYYY over protective ! I have health issues physical and mental but I’m working through it. Starting to understand Most important thing I have contributed is that my children never experienced the traumas I lived and the cycle is BROKEN ! I raised 4 sons . They are married , employed,fathers ,brothers ,active manners of their communities. I am very proud of them and myself for being able to provide a safe loving and stable home life for my boys . It sounds small but to me it’s huge . As for me. I’m a retired nurse. Yep I truly made it out physically but I’m not sure if my mind will ever be freed . I always have marajuana in the house because sometimes I just can’t slow it down . It’s still overwhelming in my moments of panic. That fight or flight starts for seemingly no reason at all. So I guess I’m slightly crazy . Fortunately I hide it well. My only sibling was my little brother. I lost him when he was 32 to a drug overdose. It destroyed me ! Still to this day I think I should have been there . I’m a nurse. I could have saved him but I didn’t. I was alone with my mother when cancer took her away too. Maybe I’m just afraid all the time of what’s next. I don’t know. Still working through it.

  • Even though you are a 60 year old adult the psychopathic mother will abuse, and often severely, because you are still "her" child. Abandon them.

  • I believe the stress response can also be activated by social media. As a therapist working with young people, so much of their lives are online and behind the screen a new category of stress trigger should be added to the questionaire. Things like negative comments, trolls, cyberbullying, etc all trigger this in young people and children. There is a definite affect on their perception of relationships and reality. So even some children who do not have family related trauma or adverse experiences may have ACEs. Also families split because of geography, acrimonious divorce, unemployment or financial adversity are also triggers for ACEs as they can cause difficulties in parental behaviour or mental health which can have an adverse affect on children and young people in the household.
    Consider the fact that from birth to 3 years is the first great development of the human brain, but that from the onset of puberty, adolescence marks the next great stage of brain development when repeated behaviours or experiences create connections. On top of that young people have no ability to put any experience into context the way an adult might be able to, and must find a way to understand and interpret and internalise all of their experiences. We need a supplemental study.

  • Well this explains a LOT about my life and poor health. Growing up in our house was unhappy and chaotic,to say the least. This info is groundbreaking! Brilliant doc!

  • Flight or fight or freeze … we have been brain trained to believe there are only 2 reactions to adversity … there are in fact 3 … I think 'freeze' correlates with the impulse reactors and self medicating and addictive behaviours as an alternative and harmful reaction. and coping mechanism to adverse situations. Great video and amazing and insightful speaker, thank you 🙂

  • This is key in understanding prevention and early intervention. Unfortunately, we didn't have this knowledge or science years ago, so many adolescents and adults are suffering today. But now we know better, and we must do better. This is ground-breaking for our future.

  • As a hypnotherapist I totally understand the link between past trauma and unhelpful negative behaviour.
    I have been trained to "change" the client's perspective and create real permanent resolution.
    This stuff is real and can only be overcome with professional help. Consider a local hypnotherapist, don't suffer in silence.
    www.basingstokehypnotherapy4you.com

  • The real crisis in this country, is that children experiencing chronic abuse and trauma, is that they grow up! I had a ACE score of 5. I am 59 years old and have High Blood pressure, chronic depression, a lot of traits of autism. No one Ever asked me about my childhood!!!! Ever! They just put me in the hospital when I became suicidal, put me on a myriad of psych meds, even gave me ECT. Then doctors pretty much gave up and told me I would Always be in/out of hospital, be on meds, and never be able to work.

  • Denial has aways been the sticking point for tackling this issue. When I was older, my Dad used to repeatedly tell me that his parenting methods ‘Never did me any harm’. Of course I was too scared to question his thinking. 😟

  • The reason we don't want to face the problem is Western culture. We believe in nuclear families, rather than raising children in extended families with high connection to the local community. We believe in prioritizing career far above ancestral place. We also believe in preventing adolescents from assuming responsibility as adults, which is historically a very recent change and is highly related to these other values, but that's another topic. So long as we hold onto highly individualistic materialism, we are implicitly de-prioritizing the health of our children – and thus our future.

    We constantly listen constantly to media and marketing propaganda that reinforce these values, and we increasingly expose our children to them despite their vulnerability to such messages. We really would rather be sick than change.

  • I've been trying to tell people this for decades. Thank goodness for her brain! And just so everyone knows, alot of this damage can be corrected and averted. For one, what you think is what your body largely DOES. Changing old patterns/behaviors. Removing yourself from toxic situations, environment, people. Implementing preventative health care for yourself. Deciding that you are no one's puppet. You absolutely CAN take control of your life. You can snip the roots of poison, pull them out and plant something lifegiving. We are extraordinary beings. We can do astonishing things. Change the script in your head and watch your body obey you.

  • Childhood trauma begins in the womb, caused by stress and drugs on the part of the mother. But established medical science and Big Pharma have the solution. Bleed the patients to rid the bodies of evil demons. ACE: Adverse Childhood Experiences. Most parents are not qualified to be parents. Most people must not be permitted to reproduce? Eugenics, anyone? What social classes are reproducing the most? ACE will eventually result in social collapse.

    The pre-frontal cortex for executive functions doesn't mature until one is in his mid-twenties. This part of the brain controls or restricts irrational or destructive behavior which is characteristic of teen behavior.

    When one is under stress (running from a bear), the blood and energy that promote health repair and maintenance goes into the "fight or flight mode". One under constant physical or emotional stress or trauma is depriving the body of the energy to maintain health. This energy can't be in both places at the same time. Hence, illness results. What Dr. Harris says, is supported by the findings of Drs. Joe Dispenza and Bruce Lipton.

    "We don't have the funds to support this program. It's too controversial. We should appoint a special commission to investigate."

  • Wow im 42 has a child i ticked every single trauma box many many times i just want to say thanks im going to get the help i need its been a tuff ride i blamed myself i was drinking and taking drugs i and never understud why untill now god bless you 🙏 💞

  • One of the biggest challenges we have as adults who were abused as children is until we heal from what happened, it will directly effect how we parent. Even if you don't hit your kids or copy what was done to you, it comes out in other ways. You need to get better or the cycle will continue, even if it's only modified.

  • I am a victim of this stuff. For me and my sister it produced bypolar syndrome. I attempted suicide at age 16. I have a drug abuse problem and my sister was an alcoholic. She had serious health issues as well me too hypertension and hepatitis this stuff is all too real

  • I just saw the film Monster and the documentary of Aileen , this is what happens to children growing up in adversity, they are not born monsters.

  • Sometimes i wish i could get revenge on All the people that fucked me up. Most of the time i feel so heart cold. This is what they made of me. Its like you are a Monster but at the same time it feels scary.

  • I got bullied as a kid and it started a massive chain of bad events, it does get under your skin and ruins everything that comes after it.

  • I read her book, The Deepest Well: Healing Long Term Effects of Childhood Adversity and it was life changing. Every single person could benefit from the information. This is how we begin to end the cycle of trauma and passing that down to our children. It makes me feel so empowered to know that even though I have experienced trauma, as a parent, I can break that cycle and teach my children healthy coping strategies and model healthy relationships.

  • I have spent thousands and thousands due to the abuse I've encountered. I'm 36 and still spending my life healing. I currently imagine that my mind will eventually feel like someone who had good parents all their life at the age of 50 maybe.

  • From the research I’ve done I think there’s one enormous reason that childhood trauma is not being addressed properly: to fix the root of the problem, we need to bring back the traditional, nuclear, married mom-and-dad family as the norm.
    There are so many studies on this I can’t cite them all here — just google “child abuse and single-parent households” if you’re interested — but it is overwhelmingly clear that the absolute healthiest, safest environment for kids to grow up in is the traditional mother-and-father marriage family unit. Any other situation is many times more dangerous and unhealthy.

    But this of course is “old-fashioned”, “exclusive”, and “unwoke”. So until THAT root issue is addressed, the problem of increasing childhood trauma will not go away.

  • Why would you send a quack who mutilates children to take care of children? The American Academy of Quacks recommends child knife rape. We cut parts of children with no anesthesia. And you think sending them the quack who violates them the most is your solution?

  • Not one word about the sexual torture and genital mutilation of baby boys in this state. Other countries are leading the way in banning this barbaric procedure, but California lags far behind in protecting the human right of everyone to genital integrity.

  • 👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏👏
    MAKE THIS HAPPEN!!!!! WE MUST BETTER OUR SYSTOMS! EDUCATE EVERYONE!

  • This hits home. My mother was murdered when I was 13 while I was in the house and find these behaviors very familiar. I just wish they could be cured as an adult.

  • I guess the 854 thumbs down were the psychopathic narcissistic abusers that don't want to admit it's wrong to hurt others.

  • I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 29. I had genetic testing done. No BRCA1 or 2, no Lynch syndrome, no family history. I always wondered what happened to me. I had a father who was bipolar and was down more than up. Everytime he lost a job my mother had to go to work. I had a hugely codependent relationship with her. She was my all in all. Then there was my brother. We still don't know what his diagnosis was, at the time they said he was borderline retarded but a therapist told me that was impossible given his ability to reason and get revenge and things like that, idk, but I was physically abused by him. Not often, but enough that I knew the threat was there. I love my family and I miss my momma. She died in 2010 of lung cancer. I finally got the strength to get a restraining order against my brother and I had to put my dad in a home due to dementia. I don't know if all this caused my cancer, but I don't think I ever really realized what I always called a happy childhood wasn't so happy. My brother was never punished for what he did to me, my mom protected him because "He was sick" "He couldn't help it" but no one protected me!

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