As I prepared to go on vacation next week, I thought I might write this column about the importance of rest and renewal. I am, I admit, looking forward to a bit of “down-time.” But then I heard a short piece on the NPR show “Morning Edition” about stress — how pervasive it is in the lives of Americans, what causes it, who experiences it and why — and it made me re-think my approach. Somehow, the platitudes about “taking time for yourself” and “getting plenty of sleep” just didn’t seem up to the challenges of the stress many of us (almost half of the population, according to the study mentioned in the story) are experiencing.
The study referenced by NPR, conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, found that 49 percent of Americans had experienced a major stressful event in the past year. What I found most surprising was that 4 in 10 of those reporting major stressful events identified those events as their own major health issues or the death of a loved one. Other stressors such as life transitions, family problems or work-related issues were identified much less frequently, although still stressful.
Listening to the NPR story on stress reminded me of yet another study that studied the effects of childhood stress on adult health. The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, found that individuals experiencing childhood maltreatment and family dysfunction were significantly more likely to have serious health issues as adults. Adverse childhood experiences that had an effect on adult health included physical and emotional abuse, neglect, living in a home where the mother was a victim of domestic violence, an incarcerated parent, parental separation or divorce, or the mental illness or substance abuse of a parent. Health problems linked to ACEs include liver disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, ischemic heart disease, alcoholism and other health-related quality-of-life issues.
It seems a bit cyclical, doesn’t it? Adverse childhood experiences lead to health issues, which lead to stress (which probably leads to more health issues). While I am a big fan of self-care, perhaps we ought to ask ourselves and our society some different questions. Perhaps it really does all go back to how we care for children — our own and those in our community.
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If the studies are correct, perhaps one way to raise healthier adults is to protect children from trauma and adverse childhood experiences — or, if that is not possible, to address those adverse childhood experiences in positive, healthy, compassionate ways. It always comes back to the relationships in our lives — as parents and children, as partners and friends.
Perhaps we should heed the calming voice of Mr. Rogers, who wrote in “The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember,” “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.” Listening with our ears and our hearts seems like a recipe for minimizing stress and building healthy relationships all at the same time.