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Nov 21, 201910:26 AM Live Well, Work Well

with Debra Lafler

How childhood trauma affects worksite wellness

(page 1 of 2)

Tough picture, I know. Hang in there with me. I have two questions for you. What does childhood trauma and worksite wellness have in common? And why should a worksite wellness professional get familiar with the concept of being “trauma-informed?” It all starts with a story.

In 1985, Dr. Vincent Felitti, a physician and chief of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, California was running a weight loss program for patients who were 100 to 600 pounds overweight. But every year, half of the participants kept dropping out, even though they were losing weight successfully.

Not understanding the reason, he decided to meet and interview them personally, and he found out a reason by accident. He was starting his interviews with some standard medical questions, and with one woman he misspoke a question. Instead of asking, “What age did you become sexually active,” he asked, “What weight were you when you first became sexually active.” And she answered, “40 pounds … it was when I was 4 years old, with my father.” He and his colleagues then interviewed 285 more participants who had dropped out of the program, and most of them had also been sexually abused as children. The clinical team was astonished.

Through their discussions with the patients, they also learned that their eating was a tool that they used to manage difficult emotions like fear, anxiety, anger, or depression, and that when they couldn’t eat, their feelings became overwhelming. Further, being overweight served as a means of protection for some, making them less noticeable to possible perpetrators.

After sharing this information with a doctor at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), they developed the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. They studied over 17,000 people and followed them over 15 years. They, and other studies that followed, found that there is a direct relationship between childhood trauma and the adult onset of chronic diseases, health issues, mental illnesses, social issues, and professional problems; and the more ACEs someone has, the more severe the issues.

Trauma lives in the body and in behavior

Furthermore, others have found that trauma does not just live in the memories of the person. Trauma lives in the body. It affects us at a cellular and genetic level. And it can be passed down genetically through generations. The more trauma you’ve had (or your parents or grandparents have had), the higher the physical effects and health conditions.

Trauma also is associated with habits of self-harm and poor self-care, the behaviors that we usually label in wellness as “unhealthy lifestyle behaviors” or “risk” behaviors.

As Darius Cikanavicius explains: “Self-harmful behavior is often a survival strategy, meaning that that’s the best way the person adapted to survive in their unhealthy childhood environment … If a child is routinely punished, actively or passively, they internalize it and later in life do it to themselves. If a child is not allowed to feel certain emotions, like anger, they learn to deal with it in destructive and self-destructive ways, which often involved self-harm and poor self-care. These are “more acceptable” ways of releasing it.” (Cikanavicius, D., 2018)

Does this mean that the person is doomed? No! The brain has neuroplasticity, which means it can change over time through conscious attention, nurturing, positive relations, and repetition. Changes in the brain will then create changes in the body, but it’s important to know that we don’t just do this alone on our own. We do this with each other. We heal in relationships.

Trauma informed care

Because of the research on ACEs, the health care, mental health, and social services industries are now using a “trauma informed care” (TIC) approach to working with all individuals.

“Trauma informed care understands and considers the pervasive nature of trauma and promotes environments of healing and recovery rather than practices and services that may inadvertently re-traumatize.” (University of Buffalo, 2015)


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About This Blog

Debra Lafler is a Madison-based wellness consultant, coach, and speaker with over 20 years of experience in the field. She currently works as the employee wellness and employee assistance program manager for the Wisconsin State Department of Health Services, and as an adjunct instructor for the University of Wisconsin’s Health and Wellness Management program. She also is available privately to hire as a business consultant, personal coach, or motivational speaker. Debra has a doctorate degree in Divinity & Spiritual Studies from Emerson Theological Institute; a master’s degree in Health & Behavior Studies specializing in Health Education from Columbia University; a bachelor’s degree in Communication, with certificates in Wellness and Coaching from The University of Wisconsin—Parkside; and certificates in Worksite Wellness, Holistic Stress Management, Grief Support, and Yoga. She can be reached at or



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