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.
- substance use problems
- chronic health issues
- mental illness
If you’ve experienced ACEs in your childhood, you’re not alone. According to the
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.
Early childhood trauma can increase a person’s risk of stress-related disease throughout the course of their life.
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
- 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.
- substance misuse
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:
Older researchfound 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
2011and 2020suggests 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 helpdecrease 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:
- ACEs Too High: information and resources about adverse childhood experiences, research on the subject, and policies/practices based on the research
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ACE’s resources: information and resources on childhood adverse experiences, prevention, and research
- ACES Aware: helps screen individuals for ACEs and aims to improve and save lives
- The Trauma Foundation: information and support for the healing of unresolved trauma for individuals, families, and communities