Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the Consequences of Trauma
It’s no secret that your childhood experiences can impact your mental health, personality, and behaviors in adulthood. Although not everyone who experiences trauma will struggle with long-term psychological effects, many people who survived childhood trauma go on to face a variety of mental and physical health issues.
Understanding the link between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and health and wellness in adulthood can help you gain a higher awareness of your own beliefs and thought processes. No matter how unstable, unsupportive, or traumatic your childhood was, it is possible to heal and move forward if you seek support.
What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
Adverse childhood experiences are traumatic events that occur between the ages of 0 and 17. Some of these experiences are immediate, one-time events, and others are long-term situations that may have lasted weeks, months, or years.
The concept of “ACEs” was first explored on a large scale by researches from the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente. In 1995, these experts began a study of more than 17,000 adult participants who were surveyed on their adverse childhood experiences. The results showed a strong correlation between ACEs and physical and mental health problems later in life.
ACEs can be divided into three main groups: abuse, neglect, and household challenges. However, within each of these categories are a number of specific experiences. The following are the 10 adverse childhood experiences that the 1995 ACEs study explored:
- • Physical abuse
- • Sexual abuse
- • Emotional abuse
- • Physical neglect
- • Emotional neglect
- • Parent or caregiver with mental illness
- • Incarcerated parent or caregiver
- • Witnessing violence toward mother or primary caregiver
- • Substance use in the home
- • Divorce
Understanding the ACEs Questionnaire
Based on the research from the original ACEs study, experts developed a 10-item questionnaire to help adults count and label their traumatic childhood experiences. In many cases, childhood trauma can be difficult to remember or define, so it might not be easy to answer each question. However, the goal of this questionnaire is to help you take the first steps in understanding the extent of your childhood trauma and how it may have affected your life in the long run.
The purpose of each question on the ACEs questionnaire is to ask you about one of the 10 childhood experiences defined by the researchers. For example, one question asks, “Did you live with anyone who was depressed, mentally ill, or attempted suicide?” You score one point for every “yes” answer.
According to the Kaiser-CDC study, there’s a strong correlation between the number of ACEs you survived and your risk of health consequences in adulthood. For instance, scoring three points on the questionnaire puts you at greater risk than scoring two points. Rates of mental and physical health problems increase substantially at four points or higher.
How Childhood Trauma Affects the Brain
When your brain is still developing in childhood, traumatic experiences can have a dramatic impact on your neurology. Not only are there a number of emotional repercussions to childhood trauma, but there are also observable, measurable changes in the brain, especially if you’ve survived repeated or lasting traumas.
Trauma causes a flood of stress hormones in your brain, which can prevent a child’s brain from developing the correct balance of neurotransmitters. Additionally, research shows that trauma may stunt the growth of the hippocampus, one of the areas of the brain responsible for memory.
Long-term Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences
Trauma in childhood can cause so many challenges later in life. Many adults who survived ACEs struggle with depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When your sense of safety and security is disrupted as a child, it can become so difficult to connect to yourself, the world, and the people around you in a healthy way.
One of the most interesting findings of the Kaiser-CDC ACEs study was the link between trauma and physical health problems. The following are just a few of the conditions that you may be at an increased risk for if you score highly on the questionnaire:
- • Diabetes
- • Obesity
- • Heart disease
- • Substance abuse
- • Liver disease
- • Cancer
- • Chronic lung disease
- • Sexually transmitted infections
Many psychologists have weighed in on the possible reasons behind these connections. If you struggle with your mental health after a traumatic childhood, you may engage in substance abuse, overeating, or other behaviors that put your physical health at risk.
It’s important to remember that trauma and our minds’ responses to trauma are incredibly complicated topics. Some people score higher on the ACEs questionnaire and experience very few long-term problems, and others score lower and struggle with a wide range of health issues. Everyone’s experiences are different, and everyone’s experiences are valid.
One explanation for the varying individual responses to trauma is resilience factors. Resilience factors are any experiences or connections that provided a sense of safety and security even as you were going through trauma. For example, if you had an unstable family situation at home but found consistent support through a neighbor or teacher, you might be less likely to struggle in adulthood.
Healing From Your Traumatic Experiences
As you start to explore the link between your adverse childhood experiences and your physical and mental health in adulthood, the impact of your trauma on your life may become clear. Processing trauma can be a challenging and painful process, and it’s best to dive into this topic with support from a trusted mental health professional.
Trauma therapy can be a powerful opportunity for you to work toward healing. Your counselor will provide a safe environment for you to understand what happened and how it affected you. Then, they’ll help you find the coping skills you need to leave your trauma in the past and move forward with a happy and peaceful life.