Caridad’s Journey, Part 6: Hope for Healing
Science cannot yet determine if Caridad’s history of adversity is linked to her having ALS. But it has been determined that higher numbers of adverse experiences consistently yield more health problems. Caridad’s asthma, diabetes, migraines, and obesity could all be related to her lifetime of hardship.
Compared to people with no childhood trauma, people with four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are twice as likely to be diagnosed with cancer or heart disease; seven times as likely to be alcoholics; six times as likely to have depression; and 12 times as likely to have attempted suicide. Exposure to childhood trauma increases the risk of contracting seven of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States.1 That is what we know now. There is still so much that remains mysterious to researchers about how trauma lodges in our bodies and how that translates to illness.
As a youth worker, I want to know what can be done to help people heal from the adversity in their lives. Our work needs to speak to how we can disrupt destructive cycles of toxic stress through interventions that help retrain the brain and body, foster resilience, build connections, and help youth, families, and adults live healthier lives.
According to Nadine Burke Harris, MD, one of the key elements for keeping the body’s stress response out of the toxic stress zone is the presence of what she calls “a healthy buffering caregiver.” Caring, consistent adults can help youth begin to regulate their emotions. Harris says, “we need to educate parents and caregivers about the impact a child’s environment and exposures may be having on their health. We also know that if a caregiver is able to self-regulate, their kids have much better outcomes.” She proposes “good old-fashioned mental health care” and certain types of interventions, including “child-parent psychotherapy,” to help normalize cortisol levels and get the body’s stress response back on track, pointing out the importance of intergenerational work.2
But as Caridad’s story highlights, access to a “healthy buffering caregiver” is not a viable option for everyone. Andrew Garner, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, said in an interview with NPR that increasing levels of social isolation documented by other researchers is a likely contributor to ACE-related health issues. “If you look at the very highest risk group, it’s bisexuals, and we know they may feel isolated. The second highest is multiracial people who may not necessarily feel they belong in any particular group,” Garner says. “We know from biology that it’s really bad to be socially isolated and we’re seeing that disparities in adversity are mirrored in health outcomes later on.”3
Disconnected From Support
Many of the adults in Caridad’s life failed her. Caregivers also struggle to cope with the effects of systemic racism, generational poverty, and their collateral consequences. The safety net of social support—social workers, the justice system, neighbors, teachers, and counselors—also failed Caridad. Many youth I work with are disconnected from any support or sense of community.
People from under-resourced communities lacking entree to health care and mental health support may need to rely on alternative community-centered approaches for countering the effects of toxic stress. Places like the People’s Movement Center in Minneapolis work to provide healing practices to marginalized individuals and communities. They are a collective of people of color and indigenous folks, queer and trans practitioners, and healers. Their mission, in part, states, “We know that trauma and systems of supremacy depend on disconnection. We focus our work on connection and reconnection of the self with the self, the self with community.”
Many spaces across the United States, similar to the People’s Movement Center, recognize the need for healing justice work rooted in community and offer access to experimental healing like craniosacral therapy, strength and physical training, Somatic Movement Therapy, Feldenkrais, or yoga, often on a sliding scale. “Feeling your body move and the life inside of yourself” is a critical aspect of keeping the body’s stress response out of the toxic zone, according to Bessel van der Kolk, MD, trauma specialist and author of The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
Whether people choose alternative approaches to healing or follow a more traditional approach to addressing toxic stress, the essential elements are similar. Harris identified six core pieces that are key to addressing the biology of toxic stress that could also be found in some of the literature for alternative healing centers across the country. They are sleep, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, mental health, and healthy relationships. Plant-based diets support a healthy immune system and neuroplasticity. Exercise addresses the somatic dimension of healing. Practices such as yoga that engage the body in a mindful and purposeful way, with a lot of attention to breathing in particular, reset some critical brain areas that get disturbed by trauma. This type of movement helps to metabolize stress hormones and release other hormones that counteract effects of stress, support cardiovascular health, and reduce chronic inflammation.4
Writers like Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and Maya Angelou have used language to convey how they dealt with and stared adversity in the face and still maintained their humanity in a world that had long neglected them. If trauma-informed arts and education are provided in schools, traumatized students feel seen and known. They can learn to regulate themselves, foster a sense of agency, and begin to develop resiliency. Van der Kolk wrote, “In addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, all kids need to learn self-awareness, self-regulation, and communication as their core curriculum … Athletics, playing music, dancing, and theatrical performances all promote agency and community.”5
Ryan Berg is an author, activist, and longtime youth worker. This is the sixth piece in a series about a young woman whose name has been changed to protect her privacy. Read the next blog post in the series here. Read more about the series and its author here.
1,2 Harris, N. B. (2018). The deepest well: Healing the long-term effects of childhood adversity. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
3 Haelle, T. (Reporter). (2018, September 17). Childhood trauma and its lifelong health effects more prevalent among minorities. [National Public Radio Story]. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2018/09/17/648710859/childhoo…
4 Harris, N. B. (2018). The deepest well: Healing the long-term effects of childhood adversity. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
5 van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books.