Though ACEs can tremendously affect your daily, you can heal from these experiences and live a happy, fulfilling life.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events — such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse — experienced in the first 18 years of life.

Along with familial violence, abuse or neglect, and parental separation or death, any event that undermines a child’s sense of bonding, safety, and security is defined as an ACE.

Experiencing ACEs during childhood can disrupt a child’s development and impact their social, emotional, and cognitive well-being well into adulthood.

ACEs are linked to

Research from 2018 has documented ACEs’ relationship to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex trauma (long-term effects of experiencing traumatic events).

If you’ve experienced ACEs in your childhood, you’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 61% of U.S. adults have experienced at least one type of ACE, and nearly 1 in 6 have experienced 4 or more types of ACEs.

While ACEs can greatly affect you and your daily life, it’s possible to heal from these experiences with the right tools and support.

How trauma in early childhood affects the brain and development

Early life experiences impact brain development and lay the foundation of a person’s future, helping shape the makeup of their emotions, personality, and overall health and well-being.

When a child experiences a traumatic event or toxic stress — defined as exposure to frequent/prolonged adversity — the body’s stress response can disrupt brain development. This can lead to underdeveloped neural connections in the parts of the brain required for successful learning and appropriate behavior in school and the workplace.

When a child’s brain experiences toxic stress, it releases a hormone that shrinks the hippocampus, the part of the brain where stress is managed and memories and emotions are processed.

MRI studies show that there is less gray matter in the prefrontal cortex in people who have experienced ACEs, which can explain why many individuals with ACEs may have difficulty regulating emotion, struggle with impulse control, and engage in potentially unsafe behaviors.

Early childhood trauma can increase a person’s risk of stress-related disease throughout the course of their life. Some research indicates that the risk of developing chronic illness is higher the more ACEs a person experiences.

Signs you’re experiencing the effects of an ACE

ACEs can have long lasting effects well into adulthood. If you’ve experienced ACEs during your childhood, these experiences may have an impact on your physical, emotional, and behavioral health. Some of the effects of ACEs include an increased risk of:

  • physical health issues in adulthood (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, cancer)
  • mental health difficulties (e.g., anxiety, depression, PTSD)
  • substance use disorder or substance misuse

Other things exposure to ACEs can impact include:

  • ability to recognize, process, and manage emotions
  • capacity to build and maintain healthy friendships and relationships
  • struggle to focus, make decisions, and/or retain information
  • unstable education and/or work history

How ACEs are tied to trauma and PTSD

Trauma can involve a single experience, multiple events, or repeated/prolonged exposure to harmful and stressful events. These experiences overwhelm a person’s ability to integrate the emotions and ideas involved in the experience and cope.

Retrospective research shows that those who have experienced trauma during childhood are at an increased risk of developing mental health conditions, including:

Though ACEs can significantly impact your mental and physical health, it’s important to understand that healing the effects of trauma is possible. No matter how long ago these events occurred, addressing the effects of these experiences can help you heal, prevent chronic disease, and even help heal existing illnesses.

If you’ve grown up with adverse childhood experiences, these experiences likely had a tremendous impact on you, but they don’t have to define you.

There are many ways to make sense of your past and personal challenges and become empowered to create meaningful change in your life, including:

  • Writing: Older research found that writing about past experiences and strong emotions can improve focus, enhance cognitive performance, and strengthen the immune system. A more recent study also concluded that expressive writing may help those who’ve experienced trauma.
  • Counseling or therapy: Trauma-based therapy can help you process your past life experiences, understand your current mental health, move past toxic stress responses, and guide you to better coping mechanisms.
  • Mindfulness meditation: Research from 2011 and 2020 suggests that people who practice mindfulness meditation experience an increase in gray matter in parts of the brain that affect learning and memory processes, self-awareness, and emotion regulation, which are the same regions of the brain that may be negatively affected by ACEs.
  • Regular exercise: Regular physical activity may help decrease stress hormones, reduce inflammation, and enhance neuroplasticity, which is your brain’s ability to change and adapt throughout life.
  • Nurture your relationships/community: The right kind of relationships can help you heal. Asking for help, developing trusting relationships, and nurturing healthy social ties can provide you with support, friendship, and even boost the production of oxytocin (the “feel good” hormone) in your body.

One of the most important things you can do is acknowledge and recognize the difficult experiences you had as a child so you can better understand the trajectory of your life and begin to heal from past trauma.

If you believe you’ve had adverse childhood events when you were younger, taking the ACEs questionnaire is a good first step in understanding your past so you can begin to heal.

It’s important to remember that no matter what you’ve experienced, there is always hope for a positive future. Your past doesn’t define where you are headed.

For more information about ACEs and how to find online and in-person support, there is more information at these resources: