A young man showed up in the Emergency Department complaining of abdominal
pain. He was somewhat heavy set, puffy like a Pillsbury Doughboy, and
smelled strongly of tobacco smoke. We started to work him up to determine
the cause of the abdominal pain – the pain was fairly high up in
the abdomen, and he talked about shoulder pain as well, so we included
an electrocardiogram, on the chance that the pain might have something
to do with dysfunction of his heart. While we were waiting for test results,
he declared that he needed a smoke and proceeded to unhook the monitor
leads and get off the stretcher. We remonstrated with him, told him that
if he was having a heart attack, a smoke was just what he did NOT need,
that smoking might well be the death of him. I will never forget him saying
“I would rather die than give up smoking.” He went out, had
his smoke, lay back down on his stretcher, and proceeded to do exactly
what he said he would rather do: die. We of course called a code, but
there was no resuscitating him. He was well and truly dead.
This episode happened over forty years ago, but I remember it as clearly
as though it happened yesterday.
I could not resist buying a book entitled: “Even if it cost me my
life”. The topic was constellation therapy – a way of treating
illness or dysfunction in a person today which originated as many as three
or four generations ago, and whose ripples continue to be felt until the
healing finally occurs, in whatever generation the dysfunction finally stops.
Religions have their own doctrinal ways of dealing with this concept. The
sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons unto the third and fourth
generation. We baptize those of our ancestors who never officially received
the sacrament of baptism, that they may finally enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Our scientists discover that nutritional deficiency in one generation
causes lasting epigenetic changes even in the third generation down the line.
All of this is to explain my sense of curiosity about the number of patients
I see in my office every week who have some horrific tale to tell about
their childhood. Incest, physical abuse, emotional abuse – these
tales come up again and again, as we go through our initial interview.
It’s not exactly the kind of material that gets written down on
intake forms – sometimes it is the very last thing the patient says,
as they are about to leave the office. “Oh, by the way, doctor…”
one of those stories that suddenly pulls the whole case together.
I began to wonder whether other physicians had the same experience, so
I started searching the literature.
I found a host of articles about “childhood adverse events”
that advocated programs to intervene in the child’s life before
the child became a criminal, some that even advocated intervention in
the parent’s life as well when the child was an infant and determined
to be “at risk”. There were lots of articles about the association
of childhood abuse and teen depression, adult heart disease and diabetes.
But nowhere did I find anything in the peer-reviewed literature like the
work of Louise Hay.
In a New York Times interview in 2008 we read about her life:
She was born in Los Angeles to a hard-luck mother who soon married Louise’s
brutal stepfather. There was violence within the house and without: when
she was about 5, Louise was raped by a neighbor. Ten years later she dropped
out of high school, became pregnant and, on her 16th birthday, gave a
newborn girl up for adoption. She moved to Chicago, worked at menial jobs
and in 1950 left for New York, where she took on a new name — she
was born neither Louise nor Hay — and was, to quote
You Can Heal Your Life, the 1984 book that made her rich and famous, “fortunate enough
to become a high-fashion model,” working showrooms for Bill Blass,
Oleg Cassini and Pauline Trigère. In 1954 she married the English
businessman Andrew Hay, with whom she “traveled the world, met royalty
and even had dinner at the White House.”
When after 14 years of marriage Andrew Hay left her for another woman,
Louise was devastated. But soon she found her way to the 48th Street home
— it’s still there — of the First Church of Religious
Science, one of many early-20th-century groups that heralded the transformative
power of thoughts. “I heard somebody say there, ‘If you’re
willing to change your thinking, you can change your life,’ ”
Hay told me. “My jaw dropped. I said, ‘Really?’ And I, who had never been a student, became an avid reader.”
What she read were metaphysical tracts by 1920s-era authors like Frances
Scovel Shinn, who said that positive thinking could change people’s
material circumstances, and the Religious Science founder Ernest Holmes,
who taught that positive thinking could heal the body. In the early 1970s
Hay became a Religious Science practitioner, leading people in spoken
“affirmations” meant to cure their illnesses. She became popular
as a workshop leader, and soon she moved beyond Religious Science, studying
Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his university
in Fairfield, Iowa.
In 1977 or 1978 — she can’t remember which — Hay found
out she had cervical cancer, and she concluded that its cause was her
unwillingness to let go of resentment over her childhood abuse and rape.
She refused medical treatment, she says, and with a regimen of forgiveness,
therapy, nutrition, reflexology and occasional enemas, she claims she
rid herself of cancer. There is, she says, no doctor left who can confirm
this improbable story — “It was years ago!” —
but she swears it is true.
Hay created a long list of symptoms with their attendant emotional causes
– largely on the order of anger and lack of forgiveness or letting
go of old hurts. Her most famous book, entitled “You Can Heal Yourself”,
to date has sold over 40 million copies. It is still in print and available
Louise Hay is the perfect example of someone who experienced extreme childhood
trauma and came out the other side – on the positive side –
by devoting her life to helping the traumatized to heal.
How did she end up being so successful, with an apparently very satisfying
life – albeit one without children or blood family? Apparently generational
trauma does not necessarily have to result in dysfunctional offspring.
There is hope for healing – but I suspect the hope lies in being
willing to give up the anger and resentment that are natural accompaniments
of the state of victimhood. Louise Hay herself said that her cervical
cancer was caused by her unwillingness to let go of the childhood rape
experience. Once she realized the connection and did let it go, the cancer
apparently regressed and was no longer a factor in her life.
The Buddha is said to have remarked that holding on to anger is like drinking
poison and expecting the other fellow to die.
Plenty of animal studies have shown the effect of environment on subsequent
generations. “In essence, epigenetic modulation results in functional
adaptations of the genomic response to the environment and is believed
to play a fundamental role in early developmental plasticity.”
 In other words, changing the environment results in changing the DNA expression
– not the DNA itself, but the way it expresses itself – not
only in the affected organism, but also in its offspring.
This happens not only in animals, but also in humans. “Adverse psychosocial
exposures in early life, namely experiences such as child maltreatment,
caregiver stress or depression, and domestic or community violence, have
been associated in epidemiological studies with increased lifetime risk
of adverse outcomes, including diabetes, heart disease, cancers, and psychiatric
illnesses. Additional work has shed light on the potential molecular mechanisms
by which early adversity becomes “biologically embedded” in
altered physiology across body systems.”
It's the old “nature vs nurture” argument, only now we
see that it’s really both. Our genes determine our stature, to a
certain extent, but not 100%. Childhood malnourishment will result in
shorter stature, and often, initially, thinner bodies. However, those
bodies are adapted to poor quality or quantity of nutrition. When later
in life nutrition becomes adequate, those bodies tend to gain weight easily,
hold on to that weight, and even develop physical illnesses such as diabetes
as a consequence.
Childhood traumatic experiences can disrupt neural development –
priming it for “fight, flight or freeze” instinctive reactions
later in life. Those same experiences can result in chronic inflammation,
as the body prepares to heal from wounds of war, or immune dysregulation,
as the body tries with great difficulty to distinguish “self”
from “not self” once the physical walls have been breached,
as happens in cases of incest – and the incest need not necessarily
involve physical penetration. It may simply consist in a parent living
out their life dream in their child. The definition of “me”
vs “not me” may be quite fluid, when the child does not get
the experience of becoming an individual separate from the parent.
Chronic low energy, chronic fatigue, is also correlated with unresolved
childhood and ongoing adult stress. When we are always poised for battle, our immune system gears up for survival
– increased white cells to fight off bacteria introduced by the
lion’s claws, increase platelets to deal with the inevitable bleeding
from wounds, increased peristalsis to empty the bowel before battle, increased
stress hormones to enable us to focus on the immediate threat, ignoring
whatever else is around us.
Some go so far as to suggest that the absence of a caring and nurturing
parent is likely to result in the absence of caring and nurturing in the
offspring. An international society for developmental origins of health and disease
has formed, seeking answers to the origins on adult illness in childhood. It is sad to realize that for most, the effect does not appear to attenuate with age. Some authors go so far as to suggest that many adult diseases like diabetes
and heart disease be viewed as developmental disorders, based on family history.
The Holocaust survivor studies showed measurable effects of parental and
childhood trauma in the death camps related to ongoing health dysfunctions.
Children whose parents were raised in residential Indian residential schools
in Canada were much more prone to depression than those raised in their
One important distinction to be made is the one between parental stress
and parental psychopathology. It is sometimes difficult to make that distinction,
since severe parental stress (e.g. with experiences of the Holocaust,
for instance) may indeed result in parental psychopathology. For example,
fight or flight reactions express themselves differently in different
people, due to native temperament, vicarious suffering because of descriptions
of parental trauma, the degree of parental ability to forgive the perpetrators,
anger at the perpetrators expressing itself as anger at those around the
parent, resulting in direct parental trauma to the child. It is this parental psychopathology due to stress that Constellation Therapy
aims to address.
The Chinese have a saying: “Treat the mother, treat the child.”
I was taught this phrase when we discussed treating infants with acupuncture
– the idea was that whatever symptoms the infants appeared to have
were treated on the mother’s body by acupuncture, and the results
would translate to benefit to the infant. Contemporary social medicine
is beginning to pick up on that concept, developing programs to treat
the mothers of infants perceived by health care workers to be at risk
of later dysfunction.
Activation of the HPA axis by stress in the parent results in increased
blood levels of cortisol by the adrenal glands. High levels of cortisol
over time produce a change in physiology – increased inflammatory
changes, increased blood sugar levels, increased vigilance. Eventually
either the organism adapts to the stress, and cortisol levels return to
baseline, or the organism stays in high-stress mode, and the organism
adapts to the higher levels of hormones as best it can. Sometimes that
best results in development of high blood pressure, depression, anxiety,
diabetes, heart disease… The list of potential illnesses due to
continued activation of the stress response system is nearly endless –
although not all correlations have been proved statistically.
In its wisdom, the maternal body transmits only about 20% of its blood
cortisol level to the developing fetus, so there is a buffer of sorts
against severe maternal stress.
Maternal stress can and does cause the fetal brain to rewire itself, such
that exposure to increased levels of steroid hormone – whether synthetic
or natural – results in lower volume of the pre-frontal and frontal
cortex (the area of the brain which enables us to make executive decisions)
and the hippocampus (that part of the brain that translates peripheral
sensation to emotional and physical response). No wonder those children
are so prone to dysfunctions like depression and PTSD. And their ability to “think” their way out of the dysfunction
may well be limited by the demonstration that their brains have a thinner
cortex – where the nerve cell bodies are located – on both
sides of the brain, right side more affected than the left side. Typically,
we think of the right side of the brain as more associated with intuitive
thinking, the left side with logical thinking. If they are less able to
access intuitive skills, they may be unable to make the leap between logical
thinking and intuitive understanding of potential causes of their dysfunctions.
Is there, then, no hope for those who have been abused in childhood? Are
they doomed to repeat the trauma endlessly through the generations? Clearly,
this is not the case. How a given person responds to trauma depends on
many factors including “genetic dispositions, epigenetic processes,
stress-related hormonal systems and immune parameters”
Louise Hay made a list of physical ailments and the emotional dysfunctions
from which they spring. On a bioenergetic level, the list is helpful.
Whether there will be cure of the physical body if the emotional conflicts
are resolved is another matter. Sometimes yes – we hear of miraculous
“spontaneous” cures of very severe illness. Sometimes no –
there may be cure on the emotional and perhaps generational level, without
cure of the physical body itself.
In the end, our bodies truly do believe what we tell them. I had a patient many years ago who came to me for relief of chronic pain.
The pain began when she was in a car accident which was not her fault,
but she was in enough pain that she was unable to get out of the car.
The driver of the other car came over to her and shouted at her to get
out of her car, that she was not injured. She shouted back to him that
she was severely injured and would probably never be able to walk again.
And sure enough, her pain became sufficiently severe that despite multiple
Xrays showing no bony injury, she was still in a wheelchair when she came
to see me three years after the accident. When she told me the story,
I asked her if she actually heard what she had just told me. She interpreted
my question to mean that I thought she was malingering, and I never saw
her again. I hope that one day she did get out of her wheelchair, when
she was ready go give up the anger and forgive the other driver.
Forgiveness, letting go, trusting the Universe to give the other person
everything they deserve – these are all techniques for not drinking
the poison, but rather pouring it out on the ground as fertilizer.
I have always been curious about why people go in to the healthcare professions.
Many of my colleagues, for instance, focus on autism because they have
an autistic child. Many Lyme literate doctors either have Lyme disease
themselves, or have family members with Lyme disease. One study showed that 68% of healthcare workers had experience of childhood trauma,
33% of them before the age of 13. The study’s conclusion was that
Childhood adversity is common among healthcare workers and is associated
with a greater number of life events, more psychological distress and
impairment. What the study did not address was why those particular people
went in to the healthcare profession in the first place.
The incidence of suicide in physicians is rising at an alarming rate.
Few studies are available concerning healthcare professionals and adverse
childhood experiences. One suggests that childhood trauma is a predictor
for adult substance abuse. One study, although not directly concerning healthcare workers, talked
about particular gene methylation patterns as markers for stress and depression. Conceivably such markers might be
used as a preventive measurement in healthcare workers, allowing for intervention
before suicide becomes their only perceived way out of their intolerable situation.
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Even if it Costs me my Life. Gestalt Press 2011, ISBN: 978-0-415-89805-8
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Your Body Believes Every Word You Say. Aslan Publishing, 1991, ISBN 0-944031-07-2. Available on Amazon.
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