I feel powerful today. I can affect change in others at the cellular level. You can too.
I can’t actually alter DNA, but I can change the way people’s genes are expressed. (Just Google epigenetics.)
Have you heard of the ACE study? All it takes to hijack someone’s future health and well-being is to create chaos in their lives. Of course, if you add drug abuse, food scarcity, or domestic violence to the pot, that could accelerate the change. But it could be as simple as berating them daily or shoving them or breaking things around them when they least expect it, so that they think about it and anticipate it all the time. It could be any of the ten categories of risk. The more adverse events are layered on, the greater the chance their health will be impaired. And those epigenetic markers will help pass those health issues on to their offspring as well.
What does this mean for you? It could be you or someone you love. Two-thirds of the people surveyed had at least one risk factor. Most of that group had two or more. By the time you reach four risk factors, your chances of experiencing health impairments like heart disease, addiction and alcoholism, auto-immune disease, even divorce, rise dramatically.
Of course, children are the most vulnerable. But traumatic stress affects adults as well.
The good news is that we can also epigenetically improve a child’s life.
An earlier study was done with newborn rats. According to Moshe Szyf, they found that rats whose mothers groomed them more were better adjusted and calmer than rats whose mothers didn’t. But the best part is that when they put the baby rats from lesser groomers with foster calm mothers, the extra grooming enabled the baby rats to become well-adjusted calm adults. So, nurture, not nature.
The ACE study found that a single caring adult can buffer a child from the effects of the stressors in her life. A loving parent or grandparent, a family friend or a committed teacher can be the support needed to keep the demons at bay.
Nadine Burke Harris developed ways to intervene and reverse the damage. We can improve a child’s future and, by extension, the future of their children. We have the power. Providing the resources to create a safe, stable home, with adults who love and care for them, with nourishing food and enriched education, much of the damage can be reversed.
And then, what if we could intervene in small ways? What if the smallest kindnesses are not just moral choices, but biochemical ones, like drops in a bucket that added together could affect a change for the better?
Extend that to us and we can combat the chaos by providing that consistent positivity to those in our lives. The next time your coworker becomes angry, wait for calm and then ask if everything is okay. When an exhausted parent with a screaming child is in line behind you at the grocery store, offer to let them go ahead. When you know someone is going through a tough time, offer specific assistance. When something is off, but you’re not quite sure what, keep watching and waiting. Offer to lend a hand even when you aren’t sure the help is needed. Trauma isn’t always visible to those around.
Give the small kindness of a smile. The small service of a listening ear. The small gift of a calm presence.
Why should we care?
Because adverse childhood experiences affect all of us.
If you want to assess your own risk, click here.