The pioneering works of Dr. Whitfield in the 1980’s identifying Childhood Dysfunction as a credible factor contributing to Trauma were cutting edge (Healing the Child Within 1982. ) In the 1990’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s), a term coined in a Landmark study started in 1995, began to point to childhood trauma as an important factor implicated in long-term health issues (including addiction). Over the last two decades, the actual physical basis for this has been revealed.
The study of epigenetics began to gain momentum in the 1980’s as our understanding of genetics evolved. This new science studies how changes in our genetic code can not only be passed down to our children but can affect how our genetic code manifest’s during our lifetimes. When the Human Genome Project completed mapping our DNA in 2003, the full implications of genetic expression and functions were not known. The field of epigenetics has changed that understanding including understanding ways to reverse the effects.
Most recently, in 2018 a neurobiological link between ACE’s, addiction and PTSD has been discovered.
Genetically Predisposed to Stress
The Sensitivity Hypothesis explains how and why some people are predisposed to stress reactivity. Roughly 15 percent of the general population possesses a variant of a behavioral gene called 5-HTTLPR, which regulates the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin influences our ability to rebound from emotional trauma and distress. This Sensitivity Gene exists in three variants. People with the short/short variant tend to be highly sensitive to whatever they meet within their day-to-day life. When something stressful happens, they may be less able to recover quickly, but they’re also more deeply affected by positive influences; when they receive the right kind of nurturance, they do better in life. A mentor who has faith in them or recognizes that they have a gift or skill will profoundly shape them for the better. They soak in the good.
This NR3C1 gene, or what we might call the Stress Vulnerability Gene, influences the body’s output of cortisol during stress. Seventy-five percent of kids with the stress-reactive variant of this gene developed psychological challenges or addictive behaviors by age twenty-five.
This NR3C1 gene, or what we might call the Stress Vulnerability Gene, influences the body’s output of cortisol during stress. Seventy-five percent of kids with the stress-reactive variant of this gene developed psychological challenges or addictive behaviors by age twenty-five. However, when kids with this Stress Vulnerability Gene also received intervention through programs that offered them support, only 18 percent developed psychological disorders and addictions as adults. In other words, the children with the vulnerability gene variant were highly susceptible to stress—but they were also very remarkably responsive to adult help—it made all the difference in their lives. If you have the Sensitivity Gene or the Stress Vulnerability Gene and faced your share of adverse experiences in childhood, you may find that you are emotionally wired with a hair-trigger stress response. The trajectory of your life may be fraught with more difficulty. For instance, you may be more likely to feel anxiety and fear when a car veers in front of you or someone criticizes your idea at the office or something goes bump in the night. You may have a low-simmering, interior sense
Mildly stressed female lab rats who were mated with nonstressed male rats had offspring that showed more anxiety than babies born to nonstressed mothers. Stressed female rats showed an increased expression of a particular protein that prompted cells to release more hormones related to stress and anxiety. The more this protein was expressed, the more stressed the female rat became, and the more stressed her babies were. Even more startling, this anxious behavior was passed along from a mom to her offspring epigenetically—the stress had nothing to do with the later quality of parental care: this stress protein already existed in large concentrations in the eggs of these previously stressed females—before the mom rats became pregnant. This suggests that a female’s eggs were transferring “soft-wired information.” In other words, Mom’s eggs were transmitting Mom’s trauma to her babies before they were born.
Stress can also be transmitted between parent and child through what re- searchers call “empathic stress.” Studies show that merely observing another
person in a stressful situation can trigger a physical stress response in you. If you’re with someone who’s stressed out, their stress can become your stress, not just emotionally, but biologically: your cortisol levels rise along with theirs. This is “empathetic stress.”
Dampened Positive Feelings and Reduced Dopamine
“Many individuals with ACE Scores of 4+ have never felt positive emotions—they have a complete inability to experience positive feelings, and when they do feel something positive, they’re immediately flooded with negative emotions,” she says. This is borne out by a study that found that kids who lost a parent early in life didn’t necessarily have more negative moods than other people did—they simply had fewer positive moods. Investigators showed study participants forty mood words. People who lost a parent early in life experienced the negative words as negative, but, according to brain-wave measurements, they also experienced the positive words they saw (“loving, warm-hearted, affectionate, pleased, happy, enthusiastic”) as negative. Other research shows that kids who lost a parent at an early age later experience low self-esteem, loneliness, isolation, and an inability to express feelings—even seventy-one years after losing their parent. Brain scans show that individuals who lack emotional awareness have lost interconnected neurocircuitry in critical areas. The more emotionally unaware these individuals are, the less activation they show not only in the default mode network but also in an area of the brain known as the “insula,” a region involved in introceptive awareness—how aware we are of our bodily cues that tune us into what’s happening to us at the moment.