How Adverse Childhood Experiences Shape Your Life Today
By Maria Sobol, Ph.D. August 20, 2019
What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and what do they have to do with me?
Like a lot of us, I have wondered about how my past experiences have influenced my life—my self-esteem, my career choices, my relationships, my parenting, my children, and my health.
My personal and professional exploration of this idea has led me to learn more about ACEs (“Adverse Childhood Experiences”) and I have come to realize that ACEs have everything to do with all of us.
Most of us wouldn’t question the idea that childhood experiences impact our emotional and psychological well-being.
However, did you realize that the things that happen to us in childhood also have a great deal to do with our physical health, including obesity, stroke, heart disease, and cancer? The truth of the matter is that ACEs have a profound impact on all areas of our lives: our physical, emotional, social, and psychological well-being.
Stress and trauma have been a part of children’s lives for as long as there have been children. Parents have been depressed, getting drunk, getting arrested, getting divorced, hitting and yelling at their kids and partners, and leaving their families for generations.
For the most part, we don’t talk much about these skeletons in our closets. We try to put them in the past and chalk them up to just bad memories, family drama and “baggage.” However, over two decades worth of research has shown us that adverse childhood experiences change people in profound ways that can endure well into adulthood.
What qualifies as an Adverse Childhood Experience?
We all come from diverse and unique backgrounds and ACEs impact all of us regardless of our socio-economic status, culture, race, gender, and/or sexual orientation.
Adverse childhood experiences include experiences that have happened to us personally, such as neglect and/or abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual).
ACEs are also experiences that have happened to other household members and include having a parent who is an alcoholic, a mother who is a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death, or abandonment.
Research has shown that the more ACEs people have experienced the greater risk there is for them to experience problems in adulthood.
This includes both physical illness (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer) and social/emotional problems (depression, anxiety, panic, addiction, incarceration).People with four or more ACEs are more likely than those with lower ACE scores to abuse alcohol and/or drugs, have made a suicide attempt, experience problems with the law/have been incarcerated, and have poor academic and professional achievement.
We all have an ACE score and ACEs have affected all of us in some way, either directly or indirectly. Even if you don’t have a high ACE score, chances are you know someone who does. If you’d like to see what your ACE score is, you can use this questionnaire.
How Can I Change the Past
“Ok, so I have some ACEs. But all those things happened to me when I was a kid. I didn’t have any control over that. Those things happened in the past and I can’t change the past. I don’t even really know how those things relate to me now. Is there anything I can do about my life now?”
The answer is a resounding “yes!” And you’ve already taken the first step in your healing process by reading this and gaining some awareness of what ACEs are and how they affect your life.
Now that you know what ACEs are and that you’ve had some of those experiences, the next step is to learn a little bit more about how these experiences may have affected you—for example, what happened in your body and your brain when you felt scared, hurt or stressed?
How Our Bodies Respond to Threats
When faced with a threat, our bodies naturally produce cortisol, the “stress hormone” which helps us respond in a natural and healthy way to protect us and keep us safe from harm. Cortisol is responsible for the “fight, flight, freeze” response (we may fight off our threat, run away from it, or shut down). Cortisol also reduces inflammation and is the body’s way of protecting us from pain and danger.
How our bodies choose to respond to threat and danger depends on a number of factors, including the nature of the threat, how consistent or chronic it was, and if we had a protective adult to help keep us safe.
If we experience a one-time trauma (i.e. fall off the monkey bars and break an arm) and we are cared for by a nurturing adult who soothes us and gets us the proper medical care, while we may cry, feel scared at the hospital, and have a few bad dreams, there is a strong likelihood that we will heal relatively quickly both physically and emotionally from that event and eventually get back up on those monkey bars again.
However, if we grew up in a chronic state of fear and threat (such as living with an addicted and violent or critical parent), our physiological and neurological systems remain in an over-active state of hyper-arousal.
In other words, we are constantly in “survival mode” which can have profound long-term physical and emotional consequences.
Just as our bodies are equipped to help us deal with threat and danger, our bodies also have the tools to provide feelings of safety, security, happiness, and motivation. These tools include neurochemicals such as dopamine, GABA, and serotonin. Activities, experiences, and relationships that enhance these chemicals in the body help to reduce and regulate the stress hormone (cortisol) and help us achieve a more consistent state of well-being, calm, and happiness.
What kinds of experiences will help increase these neuro-chemicals?
If we provide our bodies and five senses with positive inputs, we can stimulate our bodies and brains to regulate our hormones in ways that help us feel calm, relaxed, happy, and productive.
Some examples of activities that can help regulate our stress include:
calming music or music that has positive memories/associations for us
eating whole and unprocessed foods
using essential oils
engaging in physical exercise (dancing, yoga, biking, running, etc.)
getting a relaxing massage
spending time in nature
spending time with people who help us feel safe, heard, and valued
When these types of activities aren’t quite enough, we may need to supplement them with psychotherapy. Finding a therapist with whom you can build a trusting and safe relationship can help you develop tools and strategies to enhance your ability to cope with and manage your stress in ways that work for you.