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Childhood Trauma and Your Heart

A child’s heart is a beautiful thing—pure, innocent, and full of love. And while a child’s heart is resilient, it’s also fragile. The emotions and experiences of childhood shape our heart health for the rest of our lives. All the healthy food in the world is not enough to negate childhood trauma and its effect on heart disease.

The heart you had as a child is the same heart that resides in you today. Every cell of your body has a memory, including your heart. By addressing any negative childhood experiences, you offer healing to both the emotional and the physical heart. So together, let’s bring some gentle awareness, love, and healing to the heart of your inner child.

Broken heart syndrome 

If you’ve ever experienced a tremendous loss, such as a divorce or the death of a loved one, you know exactly how it feels. For many, at least initially, it feels as though you may die due to the experience. “My heart is broken” is more than just an expression. For some, there is a scientific basis for the painful feeling.

In the early 1990s, scientists in Japan put a name to a phenomenon that many cardiologists were peripherally aware of. Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, also known as stress cardiomyopathy or “broken heart syndrome,” was the term given to a cardiac syndrome that resulted from severe emotional distress. 

As individuals with Takotsubo experience harrowing and often sudden emotions, they develop symptoms that mimic a heart attack. Chest pain, shortness of breath, and dizziness develop after hearing bad news. Medical tests often confirm suspicions, showing what appears to be a heart attack. 

As doctors run more tests, they soon discover a bulging out of the lowest part of the heart. The bottom part of the heart resembles an octopus trap, hence the Japanese word “takotsubo.” Thankfully, broken heart syndrome is usually short-lived, and the heart often returns to normal within a few months. 

Over time, physicians have learned that Takotsubo syndrome results from the flood of stress hormones, particularly norepinephrine, in the blood. What Takotsubo tells us, however, is that the heart is extremely sensitive to difficult or shocking news. In addition, the heart responds to emotions in a very physical way. The heart, therefore, is both a physical and emotional organ. 

Adverse childhood experiences 

Childhood is supposed to be a time of carefree play, exploration, and learning. Children are meant to feel safe and loved. Unfortunately, for many, this innocence is merely a dream. Research suggests that approximately 50 percent of children experience at least one challenging traumatic event, and at least 14 percent experience two or more. 

Childhood traumas are often referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These experiences can include:

  • Emotional or physical neglect
  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Parental abandonment
  • Divorce
  • Loss
  • Verbal humiliation
  • Growing up with a family member addicted to substances or with a mental illness 

Logically, researchers, physicians, and educators noticed a link between ACEs and emotional and behavioral issues in children. More recently, however, they began to discover the devastating impact that ACEs have on adult physical health. 

ACEs and disease

The word disease speaks for itself. Simply put, dis-ease means lack of ease. Individuals who had a challenging upbringing lacked ease during the most formative years of their lives. For many children, living in a heightened state of fear is common. 

These negative childhood experiences could affect emotional and behavioral regulation, predisposing individuals to higher rates of behavioral cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors that persist into adulthood, such as smoking, anxiety, depression, and a sedentary lifestyle. While this indeed is true, there is more to the story. 

The body responds to emotional stress similarly to how it responds to physical stress. Over time, elevated stress hormones in the body can lead to inflammation and long-term chronic health problems. In fact, studies have found that adults who experienced childhood trauma have higher C-reactive protein levels, a protein released by the liver in response to inflammation in the body.

Beyond psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, adverse childhood experiences are linked with many chronic health diseases, including cancer, diabetes, obesity, asthma, kidney, and, of course, heart disease.

Can childhood trauma cause heart problems? 

Exposure to childhood trauma is associated with many heart disease risk factors, including obesity, diabetes mellitus, increased blood pressure, vascular dysfunction, and inflammation.

A 2020 study linked childhood emotional trauma to heart disease as an adult. Researchers followed 3,646 people and concluded that those exposed to the highest levels of childhood trauma, abuse, and neglect were over 50 percent more likely to have a heart attack or stroke later in life. 

These findings held even after the authors accounted that childhood trauma often leads to unhealthy lifestyle choices such as substance abuse, poor nutrition, and a sedentary lifestyle. The authors also accounted for financial struggles and unemployment in their data to make sure they understood the emotional trauma itself. 

How do I know if my childhood is impacting my health?

Nearly everyone can recall a challenging part of childhood. For example, the loss of a loved one, bullying in school, or a neglectful parent. But what constitutes adverse childhood experiences? Are they cumulative? And do positive experiences balance out negative ones? Unfortunately, the answers are not cut and dry. 

In 1998, researchers developed a ten-question rating scale titled the Adverse Childhood Experience Questionnaire (ACE-Q). The questionnaire examines a person’s recall of childhood exposure to physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, as well as household dysfunction such as substance abuse and domestic assault. 

Each adverse childhood experience grants one point. For example, if someone was physically assaulted multiple times during childhood, but no other type of trauma occurred, they get one point in the ACE score. Scores greater than four are indicative of an increased risk of disease. For example, those with four categories of ACEs were twice as likely to develop cardiac disease compared to those with healthy childhoods. 

Today, therapists, health care providers, and individuals use the ACE quiz to assess childhood experiences and risk for disease. Higher scores are associated with a higher risk of health problems. Keep in mind, however, that the questionnaire is a guide. It does not assess current support systems or an individual’s resilience or coping ability. 

My ACE score is high- now what?

While seeking high scores in school was advantageous, no one wants a high ACE score. After all, it means that you suffered a great deal as a child, and it may shed light on the reasons behind your current chronic health problems. 

Since it’s impossible to change the past, we must find the silver lining. Think of your ACE score as information. Just as when you get less than ideal blood results from your doctor, the question is: now what? 

First and foremost, know that your childhood suffering may have contributed to your current health condition. Hopefully, acknowledging this fact will offer you some comfort. This is not to say that you have no control over your current situation. You can still choose a healthy lifestyle. 

Instead, it means that perhaps there were other aspects of your life that you had no control over that helped pave the way to disease. What good does recognizing this do? It offers forgiveness to yourself and your heart. And forgiveness leads to health.

Secondly, it may be helpful for those with high ACE scores to recall positive childhood experiences. In 2019, researchers found that positive experiences in youth did negate some of the negative ones. Since our bodies often have difficulty distinguishing between memory and the actual event, it may be helpful to meditate on the positive memories of your childhood. 

Finally, finding a way to heal your inner child’s heart is essential, and this process may look different for everyone. Some individuals have had success with eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. Others find healing through prayer, meditation, or yoga retreats

Next steps

When thinking of the causes of heart problems, we often refer to diet, exercise, and everyday stress. While these factors undoubtedly contribute to heart disease, it might behoove you to look closely at your childhood trauma. In doing so, you may find a heart-healing opportunity.

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Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD

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