Nadine Burke Harris, MD on our potential to heal our children and ourselves from health-damaging consequences of adverse childhood experiences

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

Nadine Burke Harris, M.D., in her newly released book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, teaches us that not only is self-care a vital act of self-preservation, it’s a spiritual call to action. “We are waiting for some fancy pill and that’s missing the point,” she writes, “we have profound power to heal ourselves and one another.”

The golden thread that runs through the collective wisdom our storytellers, from doctors and healers, to artists and spiritual leaders, is one simple idea: the deeper we can open to our pain, the deeper our potential for healing.

Burke Harris explores these themes using the lens of science and her decades as an advocate, researcher, and physician caring for families as the founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco.

Nadine recalls in our conversation the powerful jolt that overcame her as she finally linked Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to the troubling health and behavioral problems facing her patients, after long suspecting there was a connection. ACEs include all those topics we might prefer to ignore: severe trauma ranging from physical, sexual, emotional, or substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, divorce, or the incarceration of a parent.

Left unchecked, Nadine explains, these chronic stressful events trigger a bio-chemical response called toxic stress that damages the very structure and function of our children’s developing brains and bodies. ACEs increase the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and many of our most serious diseases. And they effect two-thirds of Americans.

Incredibly bleak, right? Not so fast.

It turns out that we, as parents and caregivers, have the power to heal our children through our nurturing love and support.

Too good to be true, right? Not so fast.

In this clip, Nadine unpacks how a supportive caregiver can be the most effective tool in mitigating the harmful biological effects of ACE-fueled toxic stress.

The path forward is hopeful. But not easy.

It’ll require us to bring into the light the very issues that we might prefer to keep in the dark. Burke Harris sounds a lot like fellow researcher Brene Brown when she writes, “ACEs and toxic stress thrive on secrecy and shame, at the individual level and the societal level. We can’t treat what we refuse to see . . . by being open about ACEs with friends and family, people are normalizing adversity as part of the human story and toxic stress as part of our biology that we can do something about.”

It can be daunting, painfully uncomfortable, and overwhelming to talk to our children about the trauma they face. But knowing that these open, honest conversations can build resilient kids, ease the stress response, and significantly decrease their risks for life-threatening diseases, is some real good motivation.

Since so many of us have our own adverse childhood experiences, chances are, addressing our children’s trauma can be triggering. Which is why self-care, Burke Harris counsels, is absolutely critical.

The same interventions that mitigate our children’s toxic stress response are the building blocks of our own self-care: A good night’s sleep. Exercise. A nutritious diet. Meditation. Caring relationships. Mental health support. These healthy behaviors can heal us emotionally and heal our children biologically.

It’s a call to build a critical mass that refuses to be shamed by what we have endured. A call to move through our fears of facing legacies of intergenerational trauma. A call for cultural transformation where investigating our wounds is not only encouraged, but celebrated for the revolutionary healing it unlocks.

We can’t always control the adversity that life brings us. But we can be free from its harmful biological burden by facing our trauma with loads of compassion. Our past doesn’t need to define us. But left unexplored, its biological imprints undoubtedly will.

If we won’t do it for ourselves, we must do it for our kids.

To find out more about Nadine Burke Harris, MD, read The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity

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