Friday, July 6, 2012

Unkind Gifts: Trauma from the Inside Out

This morning I saw an article about Optimism vs. Pessimism.  There was apparently an outcry from people who object to the idea of holding a positive outlook, and the author questioned their desire to choose pessimism.  It caught my attention because I run into this phenomenon so often with my clients who are survivors of trauma.  The explanation I have heard more times than I can count, is that to expect things to go well is to borrow trouble.  Among this population, often survivors of childhood abuse, they learned to maintain a position of negative expectations, so that when something bad happened they were "ready" for it.  In my field there is another name for this attitude; "External Locus of Control."  Imagine a situation where those who were entrusted with your health and safety turn out to be, intentionally or unintentionally, the source of pain and loss.  Of course your conclusion would be that there is no gain in expecting good things, only the likelihood of greater disappointment.

There is a larger issue at stake, however, since to be in a position of such pessimism invariably means being stressed, and stress is a major player in lowered immune system functioning.  This is clearly a problem throughout our social and medical systems, as was made clear in a study by Kaiser Permanente on the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (the ACE Study) on physical health.  The connection between childhood trauma and adult illnesses of major import is clear, and it creates an ongoing cycle of "External Locus of Control", eg., trips to the doctor, the ER; in other words, depending on medical interventions to address social and relationship problems.  Just the tip of the iceberg of the damaging effects of child abuse in our society.  And it isn't just a matter of "getting over it," because the implications are coded in the brain and passed on for later generations in genetic and behavioral ways.  Until these long term issues are addressed, we may have trouble finding something to be optimistic about.

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