Healing from damage of childhood trauma is possible, experts say

By Amy Linn, Searchlight New Mexico

This article is part of a year-long reporting project centered on child-wellbeing in New Mexico, produced by Searchlight New Mexico, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that seeks to empower New Mexicans to demand honest and effective public policy.

Reading about adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress can be, well, stressful. The problems they cause — brain impairments, mental illness and disease — are enough to make things sound hopeless.

They’re not.

“We’re not victims, and we’re not unchangeable,” said Christina Bethell, co-author of a 2017 report aptly called Balancing ACEs with HOPE (Health Outcomes for Positive Experience). Bethell, the director of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative at Johns Hopkins University, works in what she calls “the science of thriving.”

Positive, loving experiences build brain health and resilience in children; they act as a buffer against the bad things. They also counterbalance the harm from toxic stress, her research shows.

A groundswell of other researchers, brain scientists and mental health professionals say damage from ACEs is reversible and people of all ages — particularly those age 0 to 3 — can recover.

“There’s no such thing as throwaway children,” says Deborah Harris, senior consultant for New Mexico’s Infant Mental Health Teams.

Childhood trauma is a serious matter. If you’ve experienced it, experts advise getting help from a trauma-informed specialist, someone experienced in helping people recover from toxic stress.

But everyone can begin the path to wellness.

Healing can start with simple steps like deep breathing. They’re as basic as cooing to your baby.

All manner of solutions and research in this realm — as well as simple tools for parents — are available at prominent institutes, such as the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.  

Helping your baby

The mantra is “the earlier the better.” Here are ways to promote brain healing while creating a loving, nurturing relationship:

  • Build positive experiences, whether it’s through a game of peekaboo or a reading of “Goodnight Moon.”
  • Coo, babble, point, and make silly faces. Scientists call this “serve and return,” and it’s key to building brain health.
  • Kiss, hold and talk to your baby. Repeat. Repetitive positive experiences build healthful new neural pathways that get stronger over time.
  • Ban tobacco at home.
  • Breastfeed.
  • Share a family meal at least four days a week.
  • Limit children to two hours of screen time a day.
  • Read to young kids daily. Insist that older children do their homework.
  • Participate in your children’s activities.
  • Don’t worry about being a perfect parent; be a “good enough” parent. What’s good enough? Bethell found that children who are most resilient are those who can say “My family stood by me in hard times; I had someone I could talk to about difficult things.”

Helping yourself

Adults also need to reduce stress. Here’s what helps:

  • Breathing: Yes, breathing. Inhale deeply. Exhale. Repeat.
  • Meditation: One of the top recommended interventions, it’s restorative for the brain.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation: An effective way to relieve tension and anxiety by simply clenching and releasing muscles.
  • Exercise. Crunches and half-marathons are not required. The goal is to move and get outside: Research shows that simply touching a tree or hearing a bird sing reduces stress.
  • Get enough sleep, eat nutritious food, listen to music and spend time with loving (non-stressful) friends and family.
  • Hypnosis: Find a certified clinical hypnotherapist at the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis.
  • EMDR: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing has been used for decades to help people heal from traumatic memories.
  • Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: This form of yoga was developed by the Massachusetts-based Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute.
  • Write the wrongs: Vincent Felitti, co-founder of the ACE study, recommends that patients write their autobiographies.
  • Try neurofeedback or its cousin, biofeedback.
  • Talk to a compassionate person; get treatment from someone trained in trauma care. Or walk into your doctor’s office with the ACE survey.