“Trauma” is a heavy and haunting word. For many Americans, it conjures images of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The emotional toll from those wars made headlines and forced a healthcare reckoning at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician, would like to see a similar reckoning in every doctor’s office, health clinic and classroom in America — for children who have experienced trauma much closer to home.
Burke Harris is the founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco. She’s spent much of her career trying to spread awareness about the dangers of childhood toxic stress. Her 2014 TED talk on the subject has more than 3.5 million views; the message is simple and research-based:
Two-thirds of Americans are exposed to extreme stress in childhood, things like divorce, a death in the family or a caregiver’s substance abuse. And this early adversity, if experienced in high enough doses, “literally gets under our skin, changing people in ways that can endure in their bodies for decades,” Burke Harris writes in her new book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity:
“It can tip a child’s developmental trajectory and affect physiology. It can trigger chronic inflammation and hormonal changes that can last a lifetime. It can alter the way DNA is read and how cells replicate, and it can dramatically increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes — even Alzheimer’s.”
In short, early stress can shorten your life.