#9: A Lifetime of Not Feeling Safe

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have a significant impact on your stress levels and overall health as an adult. But what counts as an “adverse experience?” And how much does it really matter decades later? In this episode I’m sharing Jaime’s story of being thoroughly burnt out, overweight, diagnosed with Hashimoto’s and IBS, and living a flattened life. With just a few small changes over a short period of time, Jaime’s breakthroughs were tremendous.

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There are common themes

Smart, busy, go-getter, high achieving women tend to struggle with the same set of health issues: Digestion. Sleep. Anxiety. Thyroid. Weight.

And once you dig into their story, another common theme emerges…

Take Jaime for example

Jaime was in her late 40’s when she came to me with terrible digestive problems — acid reflux, bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea. She’d been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s (an autoimmune thyroid disease) and IBS (which basically means “we don’t know what’s wrong with your digestion.”) She also wanted to lose about 50 pounds.

Like many of my clients, Jaime was taking a couple of prescription drugs: a low dose antidepressant, acid reflux meds and Synthroid.

And she was…flattened. Burnt out. Her voice sounded devoid of life. She was working full time, raising two boys, running everything with the PTA and I remember her words when I asked her, “What do you do for fun?”

She said flatly, “There’s no time for fun.”

A few small changes and a big breakthrough

With my help, Jaime made a few small dietary changes designed to reduce the inflammation and autoimmune attack happening in her body. She also started paying attention to keeping her blood sugar balanced — an important step towards managing the stress response.

But the biggest breakthrough came when, in the course of our conversations, Jaime hinted at the fact that she’d been abused as a teenager. With shame in her voice, she told me how horribly she’d been treated and about sexual abuse in the family. The anger was alive and brewing inside of her. I referred Jaime to a therapist and recommended some resources about the connection between ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) and health.

The next time I talked to Jaime, she was like a different person. It was like the weight on her shoulders had lifted. Within 3 months she went from miserable and overweight to needing to buy all new clothes, saying things like, “I’m a different person. I’m happy!”

“Why didn’t my doctor tell me?”

It was such a joy to watch the chemistry of Jaime’s body change, first by reducing inflammation and then by starting to release its trauma. In fact, Jaime was able to entirely get off her acid reflux medication AND reduce her Synthroid dose. She asked me, “Why didn’t my doctor ever tell me what a difference food could make? Why didn’t anyone ever ask about my childhood before?”

See, it’s all connected. And it’s really a shame that the conventional medical model is not set up to serve the whole person, but rather look at and treat individual symptoms.

Taking a look at ACEs

Time and time again, I learn that women like Jaime have experienced some form of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

ACEs have been studied and measured by using a survey of experiences someone may encounter in the first 18 years of life. Some are obvious red flags, like sexual abuse. Others seem relatively benign, like parents getting divorced or a household member being depressed –  but these all add to your tally. 

It’s estimated that 67% of adults have at least 1 ACE. And the higher your score, the more likely you are to experience health issues such as autoimmune disease, depression, cancer, stroke and suicidal tendencies – and they increase the risk of developing 7 of the top 10 causes of death.

We tend to obsess over how much we’re eating and exercising…but that’s only one piece of the health puzzle. And you might think, well, ok, I had a hard time growing up. Or yeah, my parents got divorced. I can’t do anything about that.

But you can. 

See, you may be operating with a lower resiliency “set point.” 

You know how some people can bounce back easily from setbacks and troubles? And others get really stressed out? You know how we turn into perfectionists and people pleasers because we don’t want to disappoint and can’t handle anything but praise from those around us? 

This is chronic stress that stems, not from your job or the stressful thing that happened today, but a lifetime of not quite feeling safe.

Start resetting your nervous system

If you’re like my client Jaime, you want to start by alleviating any extra stress on your system.

This often starts with food – but it’s not just about food. Here’s a suggestion to truly start resetting your nervous system:

Think of someone in your life who has a soothing effect on you. It should be someone who makes you feel grounded and accepted. It doesn’t have to be a lifelong best friend, but it might be. 

Years ago when I was struggling with anxiety, one particular yoga teacher had this effect on me. So I just started showing up at that yoga class ever darn day. I needed to feel that energy.

My client Jaime found that soothing energy with a therapist.

(Compare this to spending time with anxious, stressed out, buzzing-type friends and family. That’s a very different kind of energy, right?)

Now, think…how can you spend more time and engage more deeply with this soothing person in your life? They don’t even have to know. The goal is to support yourself by being surrounded with the energy needed to calm your system, little by little.

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