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The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity by Nadine Burke Harris, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US $27.00, Pp 254, January 2018, ISBN 978-0544828704

Many of us go through adverse experiences as children that leave scars on our mental and physical health for the rest of our lives. Even when we think that our childhood is behind us, these scars remain. Few of us know that adversity experienced as a child can cause a stroke or heart disease or even cancer. In The Deepest Well, Nadine Burke Harris tells us how our adverse experiences as children can play havoc with our physical and mental health how to overcome them. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris was a crusading physician who worked with vulnerable children.

She says that most people wouldn’t suspect that what happened to them in childhood has anything to do with stroke or heart disease or cancer. But many of us do recognize that when someone experiences childhood trauma, there may be an emotional and psychological impact. The unlucky or the weak take refuge in substance abuse, cyclical violence. But for everyone else, childhood trauma is the bad memory that no one talks about until.

Nadine Burke Harris says that twenty years of medical research has shown that childhood adversity literally gets under our skin, changing people in ways that can endure in their bodies for decades. It can tip a child’s development 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 and even Alzheimer’s. How does exposure to stress in childhood crop up as a health problem in middle age or even retirement? Are there effective treatments? What can we do to protect our health and children’s health?

However, there is a ray of hope. We are standing on the cusp of a new revolution and it is every bit as consequential as the one sparked by Pasteur’s discovery of germs. What’s exciting is that the movement has already begun. Nadine Burke Harris says that we now understand that the source of so many of our society’s problems is exposure to childhood adversity. The solutions are as simple as reducing the dose of adversity for kids and enhancing the ability of caregivers to be buffers. From there, we keep working our way up, translating that understanding into the creation of things like more effective educational curricula and the development of blood tests that identify biomarkers for toxic stress — things that will lead to a wide range of solutions and innovations reducing harm bit by bit, and then, leap by leap.

The cause of harm – whether that’s microbes or childhood adversity – does not need to be totally eradicated. The revolution is in the creative application of knowledge to mitigate harm wherever it pops up. Because when you know the mechanism, you can use that understanding in countless ways to drastically improve the human condition. That is how you spark a revolution. You shift the frame, you change the lens, and all at once the world is revealed, and nothing is the same.

The Deepest Well is a very revealing book about how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) leave lifelong psychological and physical scars on our body and mind. Nadine Burke Harris convincingly shows that ACEs like sexual abuse and abusive or violent parents can lead to diseases like stroke and cancer later in life. It is a beautifully written book and Nadine Burke Harris has packed it with the medical profiles of the children she treated or worked with. If you or any of your loved ones suffers or suffered from ACEs as a child, The Deepest Well should be your first stop.

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