Adverse Childhood Experiences

Although many of us tend to believe that humans are primarily rational actors, an excellent case can be made against that proposition.  We have rationales for everything we do, true, but whether they are based on solid facts and represent the most logical and effective way to achieve what we want to do is a very different matter.  Insane things are done, and justified as rational, in the sincere belief that they are the right and logical things to do.  And of course, sometimes strict logic seems simply inhuman.

Advertisers and political consultants have long known that appeals to emotion are far more effective in inspiring action than even the most irrefutable appeals to reason.  Art appeals to the heart as much as to the mind, the best of it goes straight to our feelings.   Emotions can be good or bad, of course, and although fear, envy and hatred are the most effective for getting us to do things commercial and political advertisers want us to do, people are motivated by a host of higher emotions as well.   Good people who instantly jump into a raging river or run into a burning house to save a stranger’s baby or a crying pet, are moved by emotion, not logic.  They are rightfully hailed as selfless heroes.

It’s probably safe to say we filter given facts through our emotions and act out of some combination of reason and mood.    To take an example close to hand — Reason: you had a vexing problem, it was eventually fixed, even though the fixing was a great head ache prolonged beyond patience — bottom line: problem solved.  Move on to the next challenge, Reason says.   Emotion:  the vexing way the problem was handled demands some kind of justice and I cannot rest until I have figured out how to get it.  Justice may be unlikely, even impossible, but I am not done exhausting my search for it yet.

The emotional position, while understandable after being subjected to aggravating discourtesy, untruthful representations and sloppy work, is also unreasonable.  If there are several immediate challenges that need to be engaged and worked through, why struggle over something that, but for the emotional component, is already solved?

To put it another way:  imagine you have an hour of work to complete a book you’ve been working on for months and that, at the end of that hour, you will be able to order what is hopefully the final prototype.  If the prototype is acceptable, sufficient copies can be ordered and sent out to thank generous people who have helped you.  In a week’s time each will have an evocative and colorful representation of what their generous help has accomplished in the world so far.   A small but great thing you have struggled towards for a long time, needing but 60 minutes to complete.   What stops you?

Lack of wind in your sails and preoccupation with distractions.

The proper mood is required, a sense of optimism, of purpose.   A mood easily robbed by the thousand hassling robbers of good mood that surround each of us at any given moment.

Now, picture that this mood has settled into your DNA as a result of villains like hunger, fear, neglect, and violence, relentlessly and constantly at work during your infancy and childhood.  Not a mood disorder in the traditional sense, let’s say, but a fact of your physical body now.  Emotion or reason?  Both.  Millions of children are born into this trap every day.

Here you have the simple but inexorable mechanism by which this damage is done, explained by a brilliant pediatrician in her TED talk, cut and pasted from an earlier post:

How does it work? Well, imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, “Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!” And so your heart starts to pound,Your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. (Laughter)But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging.

Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.

Nadine Burke Harris, MD


Likewise musing itself, like these words I am tapping on to a screen now, can be adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging.   And having observed that, it would be ridiculous and unhealthy for me not to complete the preparations for the book, even though I have not heard back from the manager of the print shop who promised to look over the proof and get back to me.  There goes emotion again.   Reason says:  Fuck the manager, do the corrections, have one copy printed.  If the copy is not right, fix it and print the next. Done.  Next case.

Next case!

This entry was posted in musing.

One comment on “Adverse Childhood Experiences

  1. […] a doubt.  As Dr. Nadine Burke Harris pointed out in her wonderful TED talk (see block quote at the bottom of this post), repeated fear and trauma lead to the production of adrenaline and cortisol in amounts that do […]

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