In our traditional symptom-focused health care system, doctors usually want to know the answer to the question, “What is wrong with you?” New research is pointing to an intriguing and potentially revolutionary new diagnostic outlook that instead asks, “What has happened to you?”
This mindset draws from a number of studies that suggest our childhood experiences are significantly connected to our adult health. Specifically, “Adverse Childhood Experiences” such as abuse, trauma, neglect, or poverty, can lead to an unhealthier adulthood and shorter lifespans.
For example, studies have found links between obesity and sexual abuse, and between smoking and negative childhood experiences. The research has also indicated that adverse childhood experiences are “vastly more common than recognized or acknowledged.”
The natural question then becomes, how does our mental health fit in with our physical health? Should mental and physical health care be more integrated? And what do these findings say about addiction? Might some addicts be self-medicating to cope with conditions that stem from experiences they had decades earlier?
Many of these studies are in their infancy scientifically speaking, and correlation does not always mean causation. Yet we are beginning to reframe the classic question of whether nature or nurture is more influential in our lives. We are learning more about the human cognitive framework, how our genetics affect us and the interplay between our genetics and our experiences.
It turns out that we all come into this world with a genetic map of sorts, and through the course of our lives some “routes” get activated, while others don’t and fade out. Studies point to the environment playing a big role in determining which of our genetic potentialities are switched on and which aren’t.
For instance, protective features in our environments such as nurturing and educated parents and stable, middle class incomes may elicit certain genetic code responses and shape our personalities and psyches in certain directions versus others. They might also switch off other possible traits such as persistent anxiety or extreme aggressiveness.
As the research around Adverse Childhood Experiences becomes more robust and conclusive, I hope that the question, “What has happened to you?” will be much more common among health care providers as we continue to integrate treatment for our physical and mental health.