How does our past impact our present? If we experience something distressing or traumatic at an early age, does it have long-term effects? These questions can be useful avenues to check in with ourselves and gain understanding of why we show up in the world the way we do, or why we may be struggling in certain areas of life. There are many theories and perspectives that aim to shed light on these questions. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study is one of them. ACEs give us language and data to comprehend how our past affects our current functioning. They have been described as “potentially traumatic events that can have negative lasting effects on health and well-being” (Boullier & Blair, 2018).
The original ACE study by CDC-Kaiser (1995) was originally run to broaden their understanding of the connection between adverse childhood experiences and adult health problems when they noticed a significant prevalence between historical sexual abuse and adult obesity within their patients. Now, ACEs are increasingly being recognized as a risk factor for health. There is growing evidence of how toxic stress or repeated adverse experiences can cause permanent damage to the developing brain, affecting the functioning of the immune, neurological, and endocrine systems in a person. This can lead to high risk of chronic diseases and early death (Boullier & Blair, 2018).
So, what constitutes an adverse childhood experience and how do we measure ours? There are three categories of ACEs:
Abuse (physical, emotional, sexual)
Neglect (physical, emotional)
Household dysfunction (mental illness, incarcerated relative, mother treated violently, substance use, divorce).
Within these three categories, there are ten possible ACEs for each individual. Each ACE represents a score of one. If someone experienced physical abuse, had a mother who was treated violently, and was a child of divorce all before the age of 18, this person would have an ACE score of three.
As your ACE score increases, so does your risk for social, emotional, and health problems. Following a stressful event as a child, such as encountering a bear while out for a walk in the woods, people usually have a period of recovery and return to a healthy level of activation of the nervous system. If the stress is severe, they may still be able to regulate effectively through the protective factors available to them, such as a parent or caregiver who helps regulate the response and builds the child’s resilience. However, if the stressful situations are frequent or there are no protective factors helping the child to recover, it can lead to dysregulation of the pathways in their nervous system and have long term consequences on the way the neurological, endocrine and immune systems function (Boullier & Blair, 2018).
What emotions are brought to surface as you read this? This information may bring up some disheartening or discouraging feelings. One may feel frustrated or helpless to hear that events in their past can significantly impact their physical and mental health later in life. This makes sense. It’s okay to feel angry about experiences you couldn’t control impacting you in harmful ways later in life. It may also bring some understanding, awareness, and compassion for your current self. The ACEs study and its meaning can help to broaden the picture of who you are. It may also help you understand struggles of people close to you. The more knowledge we gather about what is impacting us in our present moments, the more power we can have in how we approach our own struggles and how we choose to move forward.
If this is the first time you’re learning about ACEs, take some time to let it sink in. If it feels right, perhaps you can further your learning by watching YouTube videos (one is below), reading articles, or even bringing it up in conversation with close people in your life.
If you are interested in learning more about your own ACEs, what your ACE score is, or how they are impacting you today, perhaps it feels right to book a consultation with a counsellor at WCPS or in your community to deepen this understanding. It may be the next step in broadening the perspective of your current self and how you show up in the world.
This TED Talk shows Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris explain ACEs and their impacts on our development.
Boullier, M., Blair, M. (2018). Adverse childhood experiences. Paediatrics and Child Health, 28(3), 132-137.
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