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What are Adverse Childhood Experiences

Experiences that happen in childhood can deeply impact adult life. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can lead to many negative effects in adulthood, including substance abuse and addiction. Knowing that our childhood experiences may be influencing our decisions making is how we begin to learn how to manage them. By engaging in treatment and other methods to heal our souls, we can break through the hold these experiences have on us to become who we want to be.

ACEs Defined

Adverse childhood experiences are traumatic events that may occur before the age of eighteen. They can have lasting effects on mental and physical health and general well-being. 


Examples of ACEs can include:


  • Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse 

  • Neglect

  • Abandonment 

  • Growing up with a parent or caregiver struggling with substance abuse 

  • Parental divorce or separation 


ACEs were first studied in-depth between 1995 and 1997 by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Approximately 17,000 people were interviewed about possible traumatic experiences in their childhood.


Around 66% of people interviewed experienced one ACE, 20% experienced three, and one in every six had experienced four or more ACEs. The researchers found that those who experienced more ACEs were at a higher risk for health conditions in the future, such as cancer or heart disease. 


Risk Factors for ACEs

ACEs can happen to anyone, regardless of their background. However, some factors can make children more vulnerable, such as:


  • Living in a financially insecure household 

  • Living in a low-income household 

  • Having parents who were abused or neglected by their caregivers

  • Living in a community with high rates of violence 

  • Living in a community with a substance abuse problem 


Not all children who grow up in households with these risk factors will experience ACEs, but it raises the risk significantly


The Impact of ACEs

Many children will experience stressful situations when they are young, and with the right tools and support, they can learn and grow from them. However, ACEs are traumatic and, therefore, much more difficult to overcome, especially when children lack support. 


ACEs can impact children into adulthood, including the development of toxic stress. Toxic stress can affect the body as it is continuous and ongoing, so the brain and body cannot stop the response. In children, toxic stress can lower the immune system, impact growth and development, cause heart complications, and damage their mental health. 


Other impacts of ACEs on adulthood can include:


  • Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety 

  • Higher levels of unemployment 

  • Difficulty forming relationships 

  • Higher risk of suicide attempts 


ACEs and Addiction

ACEs have been strongly linked to addiction and substance abuse. Those with a higher number of ACEs are much more likely to struggle with substance abuse in adulthood than those with none. Having a high number of ACEs can double the likelihood of people developing a substance use disorder, especially at an early age. 


Many who have experienced ACEs can struggle with the memories of their past and turn to substances such as drugs or alcohol to numb the pain of their emotions. Substance abuse can distract them from their pain, but addiction is a high-risk factor for re-traumatization and can cause many more serious mental and physical health conditions. 


Healing ACEs


Traumatic childhood events can cause ripple effects that people can struggle with years after they occur. There are many ways to work towards healing, including:


  • Writing or journaling - keeping a journal can provide people with an outlet to explore their emotions and create some space away from negative thoughts. This distance is known as cognitive defusion and helps people understand that they are not their thoughts, and they do not have to believe any negative thoughts that arise.

  • Exercising - physical activity can help to decrease stress hormones and boost neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change and adapt throughout life. Greater neuroplasticity can help people to change old, harmful patterns and learn new ways to cope with past trauma. 

  • Counseling - seeking help from a professional can help those with a history of ACEs understand their mental state and learn different ways to manage their triggers. 


However, those struggling with substance abuse often need much more specialized care. If you or a loved one have been affected by ACEs and are now battling addiction, seek professional treatment immediately. 

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