How Your Childhood Affects Your Health Today

Doctors are trained to heal you. That’s our vocation and avocation. But we now know that in doing the job of making you “better,” doctors can blur the boundaries of medicine and psychology. Have you ever been told you have to lose weight? You’re obese? It’s your fault? Thanks to a doctor named Vincent Felitti who did a groundbreaking study at Kaiser-Permanente in the mid-1990s, practitioners of all forms are learning how your childhood can make an imprint that affects your well-being at all ages.

When Dr. Felitti was a practicing physician in California, he noticed something interesting: A high number of his obese patients were reporting to him instances of childhood trauma, things like physical and emotional violence, parents with dependencies and incarcerations, and neglect, what we now know as Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs). The correlation seemed to be too high to be coincidence, so he partnered with Dr. Robert Anda at the CDC and researched the link. What he and his partner discovered was shocking. The higher the number of traumatic incidents in a person’s life, the more chronic, or the more stressful they were, the more likely it is that a person will experience severe health issues as an adult, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and autoimmune disorders, in addition to more severe psychiatric issues such as depression and anxiety.

Out of this study came a new field of study, often referred to as trauma-informed care. What this refers to, simply, is that practitioners of all forms – doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers – must begin to see their patients, clients, or students with a new lens. We must begin to see the people sitting in front of us as an amalgamation of the things that produced them. What caused this person to have a compulsion to eat or starve? What caused this person to want to hurt himself? Is there a reason behind the multitude of diseases and symptomology this person is presenting with?

The common phrase that trauma-informed practitioners now use is, “It’s not, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ It’s, ‘What happened to you?'” Our patients’ behaviors and presenting issues tell us they have needs, and we need to discover what those needs are. By changing the perspective by which we view our patients and how they got to our offices, we change the empathy we have for them, thus the patience we have for our patients. This way, we can now utilize more tools to help our patients, referring them to helping professionals, using language that is thoughtful and caring, and developing relationships with them with depth and meaning. Especially in these times, most people are looking for a connection, especially with the specialists meant to take care of them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could provide them with helpful healing? Care that heals the heart, in more ways than one.