Traumas Big and Small Have Lasting Effects

There has been little debate that early childhood traumas cause problems for people later in life. Perhaps one of the landmark studies was done by a team of researchers at Kaiser Permanente headed by physician Vincent Felitti and published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine in 1998. They studied the relationship of childhood abuse, and family dysfunction to serious mental and medical problems later in adult life. Called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, they studied over 9,500 adults and found a strong correlations between childhood physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, violence, substance abuse, criminal activity and other dysfunctions in the family, and later development of a variety of psychological, physical, and life-threatening and life-shortening problems including cancer, heart disease, severe obesity, diabetes, attempted suicide, promiscuity and STDs, as well as other problems that limited both their longevity and happiness in life.

More recently a study reported this year by psychologist, Charles Nelson of Harvard Medical School shed new light on the effects of childhood trauma on children by looking at brain scans. Nelson and his colleagues studied children in Romanian orphanages who had been abandoned at birth and received very little attention or nurturing. The results were dramatically reduced volumes of nerve cells in the brains of these children. Remarkably, children who left the orphanages before the age of 2, such as adoption or foster care were able to recover both the social skills and brain volume.

What we’ve worked with are the more subtle forms of childhood trauma, what we call ‘micro-traumas’ that can affect a much broader range of children, adolescents, and even young adults. Micro-trauma’s travel below the radar of most people’s awareness, yet can produce later effects. While less profound than those found in the Kaiser study or by the Romanian orphans, micro-traumas create a dampening of the ability to succeed, to love fully, to feel loved, to enjoy life at even the highest levels of material accomplishment.

What are micro-traumas? They can take the form of repeated criticism, harsh rules, blame for small or insignificant mistakes, illness or accidents that may cause little lasting physical effects, divorce or separation from a parent or caregiver, teasing or being bullied, and a host of other common events. In Code To Joy we created an ‘Interview with Yourself’ with a long list of these sorts of events to help people recognize if a micro-trauma occurred to them. Most people can easily recognize when a major trauma has occurred as in the studies mentioned, but the small psychological or physical cuts of life can go unrecognized.

Consider that if major traumas have been found to produce life-shortening and severe limitations in adult life as well as changes in the brain, it becomes easier to understand how micro-traumas can have less severe, but nonetheless limiting effects on a person’s sense of accomplishment, connection to happiness and joy, and self-sabotaging behaviors that limit success in life.

We wrote Code To Joy to share a 4-step process that transforms the negative effects of such early events. Visit this blog next week and we’ll discuss how micro-traumas create distortions in the beliefs a person has about themselves, the world around them, and the future.