We tend to think of a trauma as a sudden, cataclysmic event like a serious car accident or a tornado. While it’s true that those experiences can qualify as ACEs, trauma is also the result of sustained periods of toxic stress over weeks, months, or even years. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can affect people’s health and wellbeing not only at the time the ACE is experienced, but also later in life. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events that occur before a child reaches the age of 18. Such experiences can interfere with a person’s health, opportunities and stability throughout his or her lifetime—and can even affect future generations. Childhood trauma is one possible outcome of exposure to adversity. It occurs when a person perceives an event or set of circumstances as extremely frightening, harmful, or threatening—either emotionally, physically, or both.
ACEs can damage a child’s sense of safety, stability, or bonding.
Examples may include:
- abuse, which can be emotional, physical, or sexual
- neglect, either physical or emotional
- domestic violence
- substance misuse by a member of the household
- Toxic relatives, environment or friends
- divorce or separation of parents or caregivers
- mental illness of a member of the household
- having a member of the household go to prison
- Death of a parent, sibling, relative or someone close (especially if the grieve is not addressed or allowed to heal)
Associated risk factors include:
- living in under-resourced or racially segregated neighborhoods
- frequently moving to new homes or areas
- food insecurity
- Being accused/made to feel at fault for tragedies.
These all tend to psychologically scar a child and involuntary shapes them in different ways. According to studies children raised in such environments may cause the child to grow up with difficulties in associating with other people, being compatible with others, trusting others and knowing how to open up. Mental health issues tend to be more prominent in such children, as they become more prone to anxiety, depression and bi-polar disorders. They also at times tend to have lowered self-esteem and in some cases tend to over compensate a lot especially in future relationships and friendships due to their insecurities.
Adverse experiences at a young age can be problematic because children are especially venerable to the effects of trauma. Their brains are still developing, which means that childhood trauma can disrupt normal brain development. The prolonged stress from ACEs can affect:
- decision making
- stress management
- physical health issues
- psychological conditions
- risky behaviors
- developmental disruption
- increased use of healthcare services
Generational pass down of ACES creates a dysfunctional loop. Parents end up inflicting the same traumas and abuse that was inflicted on them to their children and so on. It is important that we learn to acknowledge the problem in order to heal from it and to stop it from reoccurring in the next generations. Because ACES occur mostly over a period of time- at times even years, to reverse the damage may also take some time, because at times we do not even realize how bad the damage is till we start to unravel it.
Most people have a vague understanding of the basic psychological principles of traumatic experiences. We are often able to draw clear lines from a traumatic incident or childhood to later adverse circumstances in people’s lives. Emerging research, however, is beginning to paint a larger picture of how truly common childhood adversity is, as well as the many implications these experiences can have in adulthood. While some forms of childhood adversity are more obvious, such as abuse and severe neglect, others are more insidious, as well as far more common. Having parents that divorce or abuse alcohol, for example, are common experiences that can have lingering effects on a child’s developing brain. Post childhood adversity syndrome is often the result of these brain changes and can create a wide array of physical and mental symptoms that make health, joy, and relationships difficult to maintain in adulthood.
It’s important that individuals who have been through this find ways to help themselves heal from the damage caused unto them. It is equally as important to have a support system to help one as they begin to embark on this journey, because healing can be as difficult and painful as the trauma was. Doing Active mindfulness techniques, such as those practiced during yoga, have been found to restore balance to the fight or flight response, which is often working overtime in the brains of people with ACEs. This can lower anxiety and depression and decrease the need for destructive coping mechanisms. Seeing a therapist/counselor to help one further understand what exactly what happened to them and how to properly begin healing. Medication at times might also be useful in aiding the healing process.
Recovering from ACEs
There are several techniques that can be used to promote healing in those living with unresolved ACEs and lower their risk of future mental and physical health issues. Writing about your childhood, for example, can help you to process the events and emotions of your past. One study found that writing about strong emotions surrounding childhood experiences can improve focus and cognitive performance, as well as improve immune function. Active mindfulness techniques, such as those practiced during yoga, have been found to restore balance to the fight or flight response, which is often working overtime in the brains of people with ACEs. This can lower anxiety and depression and decrease the need for destructive coping mechanisms. Qualified therapists use many effective strategies in helping patients recover from ACEs including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and Electroencephalographic Neurofeedback, during which the patient learns to influence their thoughts by observing their own brain activity.
Another important aspect of recovering from any disease of the mind or body is the development of healthy human connection. People with ACEs that are affecting their ability to thrive physically or emotionally may find comfort in connecting with those with similar childhood experiences. This may come in the form of support groups, or in the simple discovery of a kindred spirit. Close relationships with family, friends, and partners boost the production of hormones that regulate mood and reduce inflammation in the body.