Written By Jordan Holler, Hearth Homes Volunteer
“Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation, which is not nurturing to the whole woman.” Maya Angelou
Change is a scary and difficult thing to embark upon. When you have only known one way of being it is hard to see another way of being as more beneficial or easier. The decision to exercise more, read more books, or stay on a diet is daunting, so it’s easy to understand why the decision to change one's entire lifestyle would be very difficult. Growing up in a household where dinner is put on the table every night and your whole family eats together shapes your view of meal time. Similarly, not having enough food, and always eating alone front of the TV, also shapes your view of meal time. The environment that we live in during childhood can affect the way we view the world for the rest of our lives. It can also dictate what type of relationships we form, what our health will look like, and whether or not we will be more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse, or anxiety and depression. When we look at the research that has been done on childhood adversity, it becomes apparent that drug abuse, teen pregnancy, low academic achievements, and higher risk for heart disease and cancer, are the symptoms of living in an impoverished and neglectful environment that does not support a child’s developmental growth.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study found that someone with six or more adverse experiences is 4,600 percent more likely to become an intravenous drug user than someone who has experienced no adverse experiences—4,600 percent more likely! (Education Week, 2012) Scientific research that has been conducted at Harvard has also found that your brain is chemically and physically altered by the environment you are exposed to. It was once believed that our genes were fixed at birth but scientists now know that certain genes can be turned on or off by the environmental conditions of a person’s life. The stress a baby is exposed to during pregnancy and right after birth can chemically modify certain genes and determine when and how often they are expressed. (Harvard, 2010) Not only is it hard to overcome the emotional barriers that are set in place due to neglect, abuse, food instability, poverty, parent incarceration, etc. there are also psychological and physical barriers that are set in place at a genetic level due to adverse experiences.
Research has also found that the brain’s way of coping with stress in a healthy or an unhealthy way can be passed down to our children, who can then pass it down to their children and so on. Harvard found that not only does your environment shape your brains response to stress, but chemicals, nutrients, and drugs also modify the genetic makeup of your brain and how it responds to stress. (Harvard, 2010) The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study found that unless people were exposed to long periods free of stress and trauma, the brains of most people do not change the way they respond to stress chemically. For most people stress and trauma continue to occur and as a result the way they respond to stress and trauma remains chemically unchanged for the majority of that person’s life. (Education Week, 2012)
The good news is that just like a negative and unhealthy environment affects your brain and the way your brain responds to stress, being exposed to a positive environment that is free of traumatic stress for a long period of time, plus intentional emotional work, can reverse the unhealthy way the brain responds to stress. Additionally the new healthy way your brain responds to stress will then be passed down genetically.
When looking at those in our community who need our help this is very important to remember. People who are suffering from unhealthy addictions, long term health risks, homelessness, or poverty, are those most in need of a helping hand. We need to be encouraging and offer help in learning how to create safe and healthy environments to live in, cope with stressful situations in healthy and positive ways, eat healthy foods that promote brain growth and development, and other methods of counteracting stress and trauma.
At Hearth Homes we recognize the symptoms of poverty, homelessness, neglect, and abuse and we’re doing everything we can to promote healthy and positive ways of life. The women at Hearth Homes engage in family dinners 5 nights of the week. Family dinners include all residents, and put one mother in charge of preparing a healthy meal for all of her constituents. Not only does this teach the mothers how to prepare nutritious meals for their children, it also teaches them how to engage in positive communication and how to effectively communicate the things they feel and think. The women at Hearth Homes also meet with trained staff who help them develop goals and strategies to achieve them. These goals range from reuniting with their children, maintaining their sobriety and recovery, or beginning school to further their education. Hearth Homes connects single moms with staff and mentors who come alongside to teach critical life skills including how to positively and effectively communicate with others, overcome barriers set in place due to emotional trauma, impress future employers with interview skills, create budgets, spend money wisely, and much more. At Hearth Homes we are engaging in conversations about how we are making a difference, and how we will continue to make a difference, in women’s lives that have been affected by adverse childhood experiences, and we encourage you to discuss with us, your family, and friends how you too will make a difference.