When I was nine years old, living in Los Angeles, my twin brother and I were whisked away from our mother. We suddenly found ourselves in Park Slope, Brooklyn, living with our father, who seemed ill-prepared to take care of us. No one explained why. For most of our childhood she had been an adoring and attentive mother, but we had seen a change in her. We knew something wasn’t right. But that was all we knew. She soon went to England, where her sister and father looked after her. We adjusted to our new lives.
She kept in touch with us, sent us letters, cards, and care packages. We spoke on the phone. She came to visit once. We accepted her absence without really understanding it. Then, one day, when we were 12, our father sat us down on our bunk bed and told us that our mother was dead. She had taken her life.
Had we suffered a trauma? Most people would say yes. We’d been uprooted from our home, moved without explanation across the country, and lost our mother. Before I answer that question, though, let me discuss what psychologists today know about the effects of childhood trauma.
On the one hand, childhood adversity appears to pose health risks: children with traumatic histories become adults with a disproportionate number of physical ailments. On the other hand, most children are remarkably resilient, and they overcome everything but the most extreme deprivation. How do we reconcile these conflicting findings?
One explanation could be that the effects of early trauma show up late. They may subtly alter our capacity to regulate the stress response, only gradually and cumulatively manifesting themselves, usually well into adulthood.
But that’s just one explanation. Another is that, while childhood adversity can produce long-term health effects, it ordinarily doesn’t. For children, resilience to adversity, even extreme adversity, is the norm rather than the exception. Ann Masten, who researches resilience at the University of Minnesota, has called this “ordinary magic.” Most children weather the storms of early adversity, she has found, and their trajectories differ little from those who are not so exposed. A psychoanalytic theorist of an earlier age, Donald Winnicott, anticipated some of these findings with his famous phrase: the “good enough mother.”
In other words, we don’t need perfect parenting or a stable environment to grow into stable and productive adults. There is even evidence that our resources against stress and adversity are mobilized in utero. In a fascinating study entitled “Prescient Human Fetuses Thrive,” published last week in Psychological Science, authors Curt A. Sandman, Elysia Poggi Davis, and Laura M. Glynn looked at the pre-natal environment of infants to see how they might be affected by a mother’s depression. What they found was that the healthiest developmental trajectories from 3 to 12 months were observed among infants whose pre-natal and post-natal environments were similar, regardless of whether those environments were adverse or not. In short, having a depressed mother isn’t necessarily a liability, because the infant can anticipate it in utero.
In our trauma-focused age, we sometimes lose sight of our innate capacity to endure. We seem to assume that “traumatic events” must result in “trauma.” And yet the research tells us the opposite. Most people cope with the worst things with only modest and transient disruptions in functioning.
Part of the problem is language. In psychiatry, the word “trauma” refers to a type of response to an incident, not to the incident itself. An event is “traumatic” only inasmuch as it leads to trauma. That’s why a number of scholars, particularly Columbia University researcher George Bonanno, argue that a more accurate choice of words for a terrible experience would be a “potentially traumatic event.” This would underscore that events are not inherently traumatic, even though they may be inherently painful and stressful.
This principle applies to children, too. A terrible, stressful environment is not inherently a traumatizing one. In fact, early adversity may confer some long-term benefits for functioning. Yes, people who report having experienced very high levels of adversity during childhood show poor functioning, but so do those who experienced very low levels of adversity. It turns out that those who experience moderate adversity do the best. This is an important qualification. For all the recent studies showing long-term negative health effects from early adversity, the full story may be more ambiguous. Persons with some early adversity may actually experience health benefits.
And as for me? My mother’s death was a painful, defining experience. But, again, was it a trauma?
It didn’t feel like one. It still doesn’t. The shallowness of that word, the ease with which we toss it around, grates on me. All lives include pain, loss, disappointment, and betrayal. No one is exempt. We learn to make peace with our past. That is the only way forward. My twelve-year-old self resolved to use the pain of my experience to understand the pain of others. I became a psychologist and a researcher largely in order to stay true to that pledge. I would be a different and, I believe, a lesser person without the adversity I experienced.
This isn’t to say the long-term impact of childhood adversity isn’t a critical social issue that deserves our full attention. We must understand how to ameliorate the impact of early adversity and prevent health problems before they occur. But we must also keep in mind the resilience that we all possess. Unfortunately, for those who still suffer the after-effects of trauma, we don’t have any proven methods specifically designed to remediate them. But we do know a lot about how to manage stress and boost health in general. Exercise and meditation might seem simple, or even trivial when viewed in the context of great suffering, but their benefits are both well-documented and underappreciated. The positive effects of just 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise are nothing short of breathtaking. As little as 15 minutes of meditation a day can reduce feelings of depression and anxiety, increase positive emotions, and improve your immune response. We would all benefit from these two simple interventions.
Early traumatic experiences undoubtedly leave marks that last a lifetime. But most children manage to carry on and live normal lives. As a research psychologist, I seek to understand and help people who suffer the scars of painful, sometimes traumatic, experiences. But I never forget that we all possess resources of which we are often unaware. We would do well to remember our innate resilience, which is what allows us, as it did with my brother and me, to help ourselves.
Anthony Mancini is an assistant professor of psychology at Pace University.
*Photo courtesy of Mykl Roventine.