We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.
— Anais Nin
One of my earliest childhood memories is of my mom crying on the bathroom floor. She and my father had just had a fight that would ultimately culminate in a divorce a few years later. In the years that followed, my father retained custody (a rare occurrence in the 70s) because my mother’s grief over the end of the relationship rendered her incapable of being a nurturing, present parent.
Fast forward a few years later where my father would partner with someone who had 2 children from a previous relationship. Anyone from a blended family knows the complex and sometimes chaotic dynamics that play out as two adults navigate the textured domain of rivalry, dominance, alliances, and parenting someone else’s children. To add to the adventure, my new stepmother closely coveted a fundamental belief system that vulnerability is weakness.
While my upbringing is not unusual, I have a deep knowing that it changed who I could have been. As a psychologist with a background in neuroscience, I am acutely aware that growing up in chaos and uncertainty changes the way the brain develops. Early childhood experiences, or what we now know as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), change the way the brain responds to stress and adversity, even as an adult. The experiences in the first years of life are disproportionately powerful in shaping how your brain organizes.
The question “what happened to you”, which mirrors the book by the same name1 is a fundamental shift from the question “what is wrong with you”. We now know that traumatic experiences become embedded in our nervous system in a way that functionally changes how someone reacts and responds to the world around them. This change is not a purely psychological phenomenon. It is a proven set of physiological changes in areas such as the limbic system where emotions are stored and regulated. There are over 25,000 articles showing the relationship between the body, the brain, and the impact of trauma.
What most people don’t recognize is that our brain did not develop to keep us happy; it developed to keep us safe. When the brain in development encounters adversity, it becomes hypersensitive to threats, particularly to threats of abandonment and rejection. Historically, we would not have survived in an environment where we were not embraced by our tribe. When the brain develops in a context without attuned caregivers, it adapts by making sure we are on high alert for threats that could jeopardize belonging and connection. From a primal standpoint, this reaction is adaptive because your life depends on it.
I was recently listening to a podcast by Nora McInerny (who has experienced her fair share of adversity) where she described approaching potential adult partners with an air of “are you my mother?” reminiscent of the children’s book. In the book, a hatchling bird born without his mother approaches available objects (e.g., a boat, plane, steam shovel) asking the real metaphorical question of “will you love me?”. This sentiment can be extrapolated to questions of am I safe, can I trust you, will you help soothe me, and will you leave me? In the end, the bird is lifted up by the arm of a truck and plunked back in the nest. If only it were that easy.
Adults who have undergone early adversity are seeking a way to soothe that primal attachment system. People who have experienced one of the ACEs are 2-4 times more likely to use alcohol or other drugs, and to start using drugs at a younger age. Having an ACE score of 4 or more increases the risk of alcohol use disorder by 700% and increases the risk for a suicide attempt by 1200%. When we think about adversity, most people jump to abuse and neglect, but having parents who separated/divorced, or growing up with a parent who has a mental health issue falls under the umbrella of an ACE. By this definition, 60% percent of US adults have had at least one ACE and 25% have 3 or more.
People who have experienced one of the ACEs are 2-4 times more likely to use alcohol or other drugs, and to start using drugs at a younger age.
Gabor Maté, a prominent physician who works in the field of addiction, famously stated that he has never seen a patient who had not experienced trauma or adversity. I would mirror this observation. Alcohol and drugs are quick gateways to escape, self-soothing, fear reduction, and a bridge of connection to others. There are few alternatives that work as quickly and efficiently as drugs and alcohol in the short-term.
So, what are those of us who fall into that 60% supposed to do? The good news is that not everyone who experiences adversity will be negatively impacted. The other good news is that we are entering an era where the connection between the mind and the body no longer sits in strange severance or dichotomy of duality. There are several therapeutic modalities that seek to help with mood regulation (e.g., Dialectical Behavioral Therapy), calming the nervous system (e.g., somatic therapy, neurofeedback, eye movement desensitization training, mindfulness) and bridging the gap between the past and present (e.g., psychedelic therapy). While these treatments are effective at an individual level, I am going to highlight something more nebulous, but highly potent – social connection.
We now know that the roots of belonging and connection are not an airy-fairy concept. When we feel connected and cared for, we are better able to regulate our emotions. This outcome has been empirically demonstrated at many levels, including neurophysiologically. If you are scanned in an MRI and given a fearful stimulus, your fear response will be mitigated if you are holding the hand of someone you love. Trauma is, above all, the internal experience of the event and not a reaction to the event itself.
Reliance and grit have become common cultural themes, where the definition often includes a personal trait indicative of inner strength. This is an individualistic view of resilience. We would do better to define resilience as the ability to capitalize on the interpersonal resources available in our environment. The Harvard Study of Adult Development is the largest longitudinal study that has ever been conducted. Results from that research show that the number and quality of your connections to other people is the single most important factor in well-being and longevity. Being loved and connected are core to the human experience.
We are a species who are meant to be with our tribe; physically, emotionally and socially. For someone who has been hurt in the past, seeking connection can be daunting at best, and paralyzing at worst. Adverse experiences shut us down, make us retreat, make it difficult to ask for our needs to be met, or lead us to a place of constant reassurance seeking. These strategies are adaptive methods of self-protection that were helpful in the past but are no longer useful. Being close to others necessitates discomfort. Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard medical school, astutely stated in her Ted Talk that discomfort is the price of admission for a meaningful life. If you want to heal from the past, take a page from the lost bird. Venture out, be vulnerable (definitely not a weakness!), persevere, and find people that can lift you up to your metaphorical nest.
Dr. Terri-Lynn Mackay, C.Psych, is the Mental Health Director of ALAViDA Substance Use, a product of LifeSpeak Inc. She leads a care team who provide members with compassionate, non-judgmental, evidence-based care. In her previous roles, Dr. Mackay served as the Director of Operations for the Canadian mental health pandemic response, the Associate Director of Counselling Services at the University of British Columbia, an Associate Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the Provincial Director of Innovation and Partnerships for the Canadian Mental Health Association. Dr. Mackay holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology and a Master’s degree in Behavioural Neuroscience.
1 Perry, B. D. 1., & Winfrey, O. (2021). What happened to you?: conversations on trauma, resilience, and healing. Unabridged.