Repeated adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can change the body, brain, nervous system and ultimately an entire life.
You may be incredibly resilient. The person with an easier life and more harmonious childhood may appear more resilient, but they have not been tested in the same ways.
You may be an incredibly resourceful person — likewise, life has probably helped you hone these skills. You may be highly intelligent, empathic, kind or creative. You may feel very connected to your spiritual self. You may be navigating life from your heart and your smarts and yet wonder it’s not coming together for you.
It’s a big word, trauma. We hear it most often when talking about returned service people who develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing the horrors of war. These people return from war and can’t sleep. They are triggered by flashbacks and memories, may be angry or hostile, and may have difficulty resuming loving relationships with partners and family.
When communities are distressed after a natural disaster wipes out their homes and towns, it is easy to see this as unusual and to understand the grief. Often the phenomenon of communities pulling together is a saving grace for survivors and an important emotional resource as well.
Complex PTSD is less well understood. This relates to repeated abusive and traumatic situations, often during childhood. The child is unable to escape from an abusive or damaging family dynamic. Complex PTSD occurs before the child’s brain systems, cognitive abilities and sense of self are properly formed. It affects the way the brain and its communication systems develop, ensuring the individual responds to threat and danger at every turn.
This is a critical survival strategy in the threatening environment. The amygdala responds quickly and decisively to small signs of threat. The distress response system is activated quickly and often consistently. The body courses with adrenaline and cortisol to ensure the child can try to fight back or run away to safety. Often, neither of these options is available to the child. With a body full of stress chemicals, the child shuts down, dissociates and goes into a freeze response.
Living this way for a long time has a big impact on the body as well as the psyche. The stress chemical overload impacts immune and digestive system functioning. It also affects the body’s inflammatory environment and may contribute to a range of psychosomatic symptoms. Latent illnesses can be triggered into expression by this kind of chronic stress and trauma. The often-unacknowledged sense that threat is ever-present continues throughout adult life, even once we are in apparently safe environments.
The stress response that was so adaptive in the abusive environment is completely unadaptive for a flexible, connected and fulfilling adult life. Who can function in a job or relationship where the smallest emotional slight sends stress hormones soaring? Or where a colleague’s bullying behavior causes us to shut down, unable to interact with and respond to the immediate environment?
Many turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms to dull the pain and slow down the stress response — drugs, alcohol, overspending, sex addiction, overworking. Others may find themselves repeatedly drawn to recreate in their adult life the scenario that generated the childhood trauma — ending up in all the wrong relationships because it is familiar, we think it is all we deserve or the child inside thinks “this time I can fix it and make it right.”
The ACES Study
From 1995 to 1997, a U.S. study involving 17,000 participants measured the number of adverse childhood experiences in this population and tracked participants through life to explore the relationship between ACES (adverse childhood experiences) and health and life functioning.
ACES included such adverse experiences as sexual abuse, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical abuse, physical neglect, substance abuse in home, mental illness in home, incarceration of family member, parental separation or divorce and witnessing violence against the mother.
ACES were found to increase the risk for:
- Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Fetal death
- Health-related quality of life
- Illicit drug use
- Ischemic heart disease (IHD)
- Liver disease
- Risk for intimate partner violence
- Multiple sexual partners
- Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
- Suicide attempts
- Unintended pregnancies
- Early initiation of smoking
- Early initiation of sexual activity
- Adolescent pregnancy
- Lung cancer
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris has brought the results of this study to life in a very clear and simple way that demands action as a community. (You can see it here.)
If you would like to check your own ACES score, you can find the test here.
If you are struggling with multiple health problems, life survival, isolation, ongoing financial issues, mood management, or sleep, you could be affected by adverse childhood events more than you realize. It’s not about attitude, it’s in your neurochemistry and the activation of your DNA potentials. Often we blame ourselves when we do not have a complete picture of what is driving health, emotional and social problems.
If any of this rings bells for you, please find a good trauma-informed therapist to help you work through it all. The picture for complex trauma is unique and the right answers are not always the things you read about in pop psychology books and magazines.
Weiss, J.S., Wagner, S.H. What explains the negative consequences of adverse childhood experiences on adult health? Insights from cognitive and neuroscience research (editorial). American Journal of Preventive Medicine 1998;14:356-360.