Building Resilience Key to Overcoming Childhood Trauma

It's been said that time heals all wounds.

I thought of that old saying as I spoke to inmates at Ironwood Prison at the first-ever TEDx conference to be held inside the walls of a California penitentiary. In a prison gym that was transformed into a conference space to raise awareness about the positive impact of prison education programs, I looked out at an audience of incarcerated men, some in their 20s, some who had been there for decades and some who had no chance of ever regaining their freedom.

I felt compassion for the victims of their crimes, people who had been terribly harmed or perhaps lost loved ones because of the actions of these men. But I also felt compassion for the men of Ironwood, because they have suffered harm in their lives too.

I'm a pediatrician by background, and I know a little bit about what it takes for a body to heal. But I'm talking about something different. I'm taking about healing on the inside, from wounds that may have occurred a long time ago. And when those wounds suffered long ago remain open and painful to the touch, they have a way of haunting us. They can set us on an unhealthy and destructive path from a young age.

Here is the real truth: One of the largest public health crisis in America is hidden in plain sight, and it's about the lifetime of mental and physical health problems that have their roots in something we call childhood trauma. I know many of the Ironwood Prison inmates understood this. Some may have grown up in a home where they couldn't count on the adults around them. Some may have been were physically or sexually or verbally abused, told they were no good and would never amount to anything. Maybe some grew up in a neighborhood where they felt nervous about walking to school because someone might jump them or shoot them. Maybe all of these things happened, and maybe they happened over and over again.

The people who have survived these kinds of childhood trauma are not alone. New research has found that nearly two-thirds of Californians have experienced at least one kind of childhood trauma, and 25 percent have experienced three or more. And for more than 15 years now, study after study has shown us that childhood trauma is the worst kind of crystal ball that can sadly predict lost potential in our young people and adults. Here's how it happens.

Our brains and bodies are wired for survival. There's an automatic part of our brains, the part that tells our heart to beat and our lungs to breathe and our bodies do that without even a thought. When we feel we're in danger, that automatic part of our brain kicks in and floods our body with hormones. Have you heard of the phrase "fight or flight?" Well, it comes from this -- when our brains believe we are being threatened, then we get ready to go into battle or head for the hills. Our brains respond this way, even when we are small children. And when this happens over and over again, we become trained to automatically respond to the signals of trauma -- whether these are real signals or not.

New research tells us that childhood trauma is the top predictor of misbehavior leading to school suspension and the number two predictor of academic failure. And it also predicts abuse of substances and other risky behavior that can lead to even greater trouble down the road. In fact, we know that more than 90 percent of young people in the juvenile justice system have experienced childhood trauma.

People who carry this trauma around with them are much more likely to struggle with depression, obesity, heart disease and other health problems that have their roots in this toxic stress. It's a heavy load that leads to a heavy heart.

In other words, the old saying about time healing all wounds is simply not true. Not these wounds.

All of this sounds very discouraging, I know. But more than anything, I am hopeful, and here's why. Because just as all of us are wired for survival, we're also wired for resilience. Once we learn to recognize the symptoms of childhood trauma, we can react in a different and healthier way. We can learn to calm ourselves down, so we can think more clearly and make better decisions.

But the most important thing we can do -- and sometimes it's the hardest -- is to speak up about what has happened to us. Because it's in speaking our truth and reaching out that we can connect with other people. That's the essential ingredient for courage and resilience and healing.

I'm not the first person to say these things. In fact, my closing words to the men of Ironwood were those of Rumi, a Persian poet who lived in the 13th century, who said, "The wound is the place where the light enters you." I hope for all of the men Ironwood and for all who read these words, that the light inside of you continues to shine brightly.