ACE’s – you might think card games or school grades, but in this instance I am referring to Adverse Childhood Experiences. You may have read the term in a passing article or heard it on a news show. However, do we fully understand what this means for individuals and society at large? It’s doubtful, but we need to.
From 1995-1997, Doctor Dr. Vincent Felitti from Kaiser Permanente and Doctor Robert Anda from the CDC conducted one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse, neglect and household challenges and later-life health and well-being ever done. Their study involved 17, 421 participants who received physical exams and completed confidential surveys regarding their childhood experiences. In addition, they reported on their current health conditions and behaviors. The findings also validated decades of mental health research.
Childhood is a time of vulnerability. Children need to feel safe and protected in a stable environment. Unfortunately, there are long-lasting impacts when that doesn’t happen.
What Are ACE’s?
ACE’s are experiences that represent health or social problems of national importance. Why? Because large numbers of these children grow up to be low achievers, have poor relationships and suffer from chronic disease, (Dr. Debra Wingfield, PhD. author, domestic violence consultant and advisor). Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic experiences that children experience before the age of 18 that can have lasting impacts on their mental health, physical health, and general well-being.
Let’s look at some potentially traumatic events in a child’s life that are considered ACE’s:
- Contact sexual abuse
- Emotional neglect
- Physical neglect
- Alcohol or drug abuse in home
- Family member incarcerated
- Mentally ill, chronically ill family member (i.e. chronically depressed mother)
- Mother treated violently
- Both biological parents not being present
- Recurrent severe physical abuse, witnessing or experiencing it
- Recurrent and severe emotional abuse, including coercive control, witnessing or experiencing it
How Many ACE’s Walk Among Us?
From the initial study, approximately 66% of respondents stated that they had experienced 1-2 Adverse Childhood Experiences; 20% had experienced 3. In 2019, another study was done of 144,000 adults across 25 states. Of this group, 61% had experienced at least 1 ACE and 16% had experienced 4 or more. Women and several racial and ethnic minority groups are at greater risk for experiencing a higher number of ACEs.
In other words, they are not uncommon.
Some Impacts For ACE’s
The original ACE study and decades of research since have linked ACEs to an increased risk of developing chronic diseases and behavioral challenges, including obesity, autoimmune disease, depression and alcoholism. The greater the number of ACEs, the greater the risk for negative outcomes. Individuals with multiple ACEs may be more likely to perform poorly in school, be unemployed and develop high-risk health behaviors, such as smoking and drug use. These high-risk behaviors account for nearly 50 percent of the increased risk of negative consequences associated with ACEs. In 2019, the CDC found that at least five of the top 10 leading causes of death, including respiratory and heart disease, cancer and suicide, are associated with ACEs.ncsl.org
Sadly, the trauma(s) these children face too often overwhelms them, especially if they don’t have outside support systems. Stress floods them to the point that it becomes toxic stress.
“Toxic stress,” is where the stress that floods the body is so intense that it can cause changes to one’s metabolism, immune system, cardiovascular system, as well as brain and nervous system. There is a cumulative effect when it comes to toxic stress, and the more ACEs a child experiences, the greater impact it can have on their mental and physical health.1Wendy Wisner
Further impacts include:
- difficulty forming healthy, stable relationships
- may have unstable work histories
- struggle with finances
- high percentage struggle with depression throughout life
- more likely to be involved in violence
- experience early, unwanted pregnancies
- more likely to be incarcerated
- experience higher levels of unemployment
- more likely to also expose their children to ACEs
- maintain a higher risk of alcohol or substance abuse
- have a higher risk of suicide attempts
- have a higher risk of health issues such as heart disease cancer, lung disease, and liver disease
What Does it Mean For Us?
In 2019, when I first learned about the ACE study, so many pieces of my personal puzzle fell into place. At the time, I was preparing a training for mentors in a non-profit I was volunteering for. What I was learning applied to them, yes, yet, the more I read the more clear it became to me that the material also applied to me.
Honestly, the growing awareness of my personal ACE’s was like the proverbial light bulb coming on in my brain. They explained my chronic migraines and fibromyalgia, my gastro problems as a child and adult. They explained my poor job history when I was younger and the struggle – practically fear – I have with finances. And yes, I’ve struggled with depression most of my adult life.
If you have been wondering why you’ve been struggling a little too hard for a little too long with your emotional and physical well-being —feeling as if you’ve been swimming against some invisible current that never ceases — this “aha” can come as a welcome relief. Finally, you can begin to see the current and understand how it’s been working steadily against you all of your life.
Donna Jackson Nakazawa
However, we are not simply victims – to our past, to our health, or to our circumstances today.
Recovery is Possible
The CDC focuses mostly on preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, domestic abuse and drug abuse increased. How do we help children and adults cope and recover now?
We know that extreme adversity nearly always generates serious problems (in children) that require treatment. However, according to the Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult in the family or community. Interestingly, one of the other 4 factors researchers mentioned was mobilizing sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions.
For adults who struggle with ACE’s, Nakazawa, the author of Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology, and How You Can Heal, offers 8 ways people can use to recover from their trauma.
- Take the ACE questionnaire – consider sharing with your healthcare provider and therapist
- Begin writing to heal – your deepest emotions and thoughts regarding your experiences for 4 days, 20 minutes a day
- Practice mindfulness – A growing body of research indicates that individuals who’ve practiced mindfulness meditation show an increase in gray matter in the same parts of the brain that are damaged by adverse childhood experiences and shifts in genes that regulate their physiological stress response.
- Yoga – So many good things from yoga! see the link
- Therapy – Part of the power of therapy lies in allowing ourselves, finally, to form an attachment to a safe person. A therapist’s unconditional acceptance helps us to modify the circuits in our brain that tell us that we can’t trust anyone, and grow new, healthier neural connections.
- EEG Neurofeedback
- EMDR Therapy
- Rally community healing – Good relationships can make us whole again. When we find people who support us, and befriended us, our bodies and brains have a better shot at healing.
Ongoing Healing for ACE’s
I am deeply grateful to God for providing the people and resources in my life that gave me resilience. There were a few teachers who saw value in me and encouraged me along the way and I appreciated that a great deal. However, the force that grounded me, made me feel loved and gave me purpose was the the gospel of Jesus. I heard it and witnessed it from the people at a local church.
A friend had invited me to attend with her as a young teen. She didn’t hang around very long; I stayed for decades. In that place, God held me, loved and nurtured me, shepherded and matured me. All while my home life was at times tumultuous, other times calm, but seldom stable.
Paul expresses well in 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 NKJV what I have felt over the years:
7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. 8 We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed,
Jesus is my treasure. He has never forsaken me…nor will He forsake you.