In “Childhood Disrupted”, Donna Jackson Nakazawa explains how your biography becomes your biology…and that you really can heal

childhood-disruptedcovIf you want to know why you’ve been married three – or more — times. Or why you just can’t stop smoking. Or why the ability to control your drinking is slipping away from you. Or why you have so many physical problems that doctors just can’t seem to help you with. Or why you feel as if there’s no joy in your life even though you’re “successful”, there’s a book that will show how the problems that you’ve been grappling with in your adult life have their roots in childhood events that you probably didn’t even consider had any bearing on what you’re dealing with now.

After hundreds of interviews and two years of writing, science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa’s long-awaited book, Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal, hits the bookstores (and e-bookstores) on Tuesday.

Besides being the first self-help book about ACEs, it’s the first book that explains what’s been called the unified science of human development in clear language for people who aren’t scientists or medical professionals.

ACEs refers to adverse childhood experiences, a term coined in the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study that was first published in 1998. The study revealed that childhood trauma is very common — two-thirds of us have experienced at least one type — and how that can lead to adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. It also showed that the more types of trauma you experience, the greater the risk of alcoholism, heart disease, cancer, suicide, etc. (Got Your ACE Score?)

Childhood Disrupted goes into great detail about how the consequences of the toxic stress caused by that trauma damages kids’ developing brains (and damaged our developing brains when we were children), as well as our bodies and genes. The good news is that the resilience research shows just our plastic our brains are, and how much our bodies can heal, given the chance.

What makes Childhood Disrupted come to life are the 13 people whom Nakazawa followed for year through their histories of trauma and their journeys of healing. Through their stories, it’s easy to see ourselves.

Donna Jackson Nakazawa

Donna Jackson Nakazawa

Last week, as Donna was preparing for launch party for Childhood Disrupted at her local bookstore, The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore (7 pm ET, Tuesday, July 7), she and I talked about how she came to this day.

Jane Stevens: Why did you decide to write Childhood Disrupted

Donna Jackson Nakazawa: As a science journalist specializing in the intersection of neurobiology, immunology and the inner workings of the human heart, I had already spent 20 years writing about the human immune system and the human brain. I began thinking of the immune system like a barrel. If you put enough stress on the immune system, there can be that last drop of water that it can’t hold, causing the barrel to spill over, and havoc

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Just Breathe — the kids in this video explain how to calm your brain

From filmmaker Julie Bayer Salzman’s description on YouTube:

The inspiration for “Just Breathe” first came about a little over a year ago when I overheard my then 5-year-old son talking with his friend about how emotions affect different regions of the brain, and how to calm down by taking deep breaths — all things they were beginning to learn in Kindergarten at their new school, Citizens of the World Charter School, in Mar Vista, CA. I was surprised and

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Meditation 2.0: A new way to meditate

Dr. Amit Sood, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and founder of the Global Center for Resiliency and Wellbeing, narrates this animation, which he produced after becoming frustrated with how difficult it was to meditate. After he realized that modern humans might need to do meditation a different way, he came up with this approach. Here are a couple of paragraphs from his description:

I was born in India. I like meditation. What is not to like about meditation? It is known to be relaxing, health improving, brain enhancing, and free of side effects. The problem was–after decades of learning and practicing I must confess that  I found meditation a very difficult practice. I had a few good days, but on most days I didn’t even know what I was doing. If after years of practice, this was my state, I can only begin to imagine what others might be going through. It occurred to me
that the busy minds of the 21st Century need a modified version of the practice to access its full benefits. I went back to the drawing board, immersed myself in neuroscience and evolutionary biology.
I started developing a simpler way to access meditation,  which was in many ways very different from what I had learned over the years. Applying those ideas helped my personal practice, but I was still unsure.
In the midst of it all, I met the world’s preeminent authority on meditation – His Holiness Dalai Lama.

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

Childhood trauma isn’t something you just get over as you grow up. In this 16-minute TED Talk, pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris explains that the repeated stress of abuse, neglect and parents struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues has real, tangible effects on the development of the brain.

This unfolds across a lifetime, to the point where those who’ve experienced high levels of trauma are at triple the risk for heart disease and lung cancer. This is an impassioned plea for pediatric medicine to confront the prevention and treatment of trauma, head-on.

Most Californians have experienced childhood trauma; early adversity a direct link to adult onset of chronic disease, depression, violence

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Nearly two-thirds of California adults have experienced at least one type of major childhood trauma, such as physical, verbal or sexual abuse, or living with a family member who abuses alcohol or is depressed, according to a report released today.

The report – “Hidden Crisis: Findings on Adverse Childhood Experiences in California” (HiddenCrisis_Report_1014) – also reveals the effects of those early adversities: a startling and large increased risk of the adult onset of chronic disease, such as heart disease and cancer, mental illness and violence or being a victim of violence.

Ten types of childhood trauma were measured. They include physical, sexual and verbal abuse, and physical and emotional neglect. Five family dysfunctions were also measured: a family member diagnosed with mental illness, addicted to alcohol or other drug, or who has been incarcerated; witnessing a mother being abused, an losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason.

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Alberta Family Wellness Initiative changes minds by informing Canadians about effects of toxic stress on kids’ brains

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A cartoon outline of a child – in a video – stands alone near a cracked sidewalk heaped with obstacles: giant red bricks labeled “neglect,” “abuse” and “parental addiction.” The voice-over says: “It’s possible to fix some of the damage of toxic stress later on, but it’s easier, more effective and less expensive to build solid brain architecture in the first place.”

The four-minute animation—which covers toxic stress, caregiver-child interaction and the role of communities in building healthy brains—has reached many people since its release in October 2013. But the video is just one snippet of the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative (AFWI), a project aimed to better the lives of children and families in one of Canada’s westernmost provinces.

Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president, Norlien Foundation

Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president, Norlien Foundation

The AFWI, launched in 2007 by the private Norlien Foundation, has an ambitious agenda: to promote the use of scientific knowledge about early brain and biological development in order to change beliefs, policies and practices related to children, families and communities—in short, to “bridge the gap between what we know and what we do,” according to a 2013 AFWI report.

The AFWI began its work by capturing the attention and engagement of high-level “change-makers”—government officials, community leaders, policy experts, academics and administrators who could learn the newest science, discuss it in depth, then take that story home to influence research, policy and practice.

“In the early days, the focus of our effort was on policy-makers and professionals rather than the public. You need to start changing the thinking of those in the system who are making decisions before you start focusing on a public audience,” said Dr. Michelle Gagnon, vice president of Norlien.

AFWI focuses on the “core story of brain development,” a series of metaphors grounded in emerging biomedical science and developed with the help of the FrameWorks Institute  and the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University.

  • Brains are not just born; they are built through a child’s experiences and interaction.

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Mindfulness protects adults from physical, mental health consequences of childhood abuse, neglect

Aeye2Fact #1: People who were abused and neglected when they were kids have poorer physical and mental health. The more types of ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) – physical abuse, an alcoholic father, an abused mother, etc. – the higher the risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, obesity, being violent or experiencing violence. Got an ACE score of 4 or more? Your risk of heart disease increases 200%. Your risk of suicide increases 1200%.

Fact #2: Mindfulness practices improve people’s physical and mental health.

Now, says Dr. Robert Whitaker, a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics and public health at Temple University, there’s one more important fact: People who are mindful are physically and mentally healthier, no matter what their ACE scores are.

This study, to be published in the October issue of Preventive Medicine, is the first to look at the relationship between ACEs, mindfulness and health. And it has implications for anyone, and especially those who take care of children– teachers, parents, coaches, healthcare and childcare workers.

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Dr. Robert Whitaker

Many people think of mindfulness as sitting around and saying “Ommmm.” There’s actually more to it, and it’s worth explaining. People who aren’t mindful don’t regulate their own emotions very well. Situations that trigger traumatic memories may cause people who aren’t mindful to lose focus on what’s happening currently, and lead them to make snap judgments and have knee-jerk reactions of anger, frustration, or fear, which can further the spread stress and trauma. They also ruminate on situations they can’t control, and can’t let go. And they may not even be conscious that they’re doing any of this. They just think it’s part of their personality.

Here’s what it’s like not to be mindful:

  • “My co-worker’s angry today. I must have done something wrong. She’s JUST like my mother: moody, angry, a screamer. Well, I’d better get my defenses up and give her a piece of my mind before she attacks me.”

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