The Bitter Truth and Impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences

by Vance Farrell

As we grow up, our lives are filled with an infinitesimal number of experiences that can range from those that are too easily forgotten all the way to experiences that shape the people we are today. This should come as no surprise, considering the immense development the human brain goes through from birth through age 21. What is often forgotten is that these experiences not only provide us with information about that specific subject or situation, but they also help us to understand the world we live in and how we fit into that world. When viewed from this perspective, even the most minor and seemingly unimportant experience can suddenly become abundantly more impactful and paramount. While this concept and perspective can be amazing and wonderful, the flip side of this coin also sheds light onto those negative experiences that have been impactful in a more detrimental manner.

            These negative experiences and their impacts on the human body and mind were studied by Kaiser Permanente and continue to be studied by them and the CDC. This study has become known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. It has drastically altered our understanding of stress, trauma, and their lasting impact on childhood development and a person’s physical and mental health into adulthood. The study was able to identify 10 ACEs that have a strong correlation to many health concerns and displays of various maladaptive and/or destructive behaviors. The ACEs that the study was able to identify with these correlations are broken down into three categories, abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual), neglect (physical and emotional), and household dysfunction (mental illness within the family, an incarcerated relative, domestic violence, substance abuse, and an absent parent). As the number of these adverse childhood experiences increased for a person, the study identified that there was also an increased likelihood of concerning health complications and diagnoses, such as: severe obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, COPD, lower bone density leading to increased incidents of broken bones, and depression. Additionally, the study has identified various behavioral manifestations present in those with higher ACEs, which include a lack of physical activity, smoking, alcoholism, substance abuse, missed work, sexually risky behaviors, and suicide attempts.

            Knowing that this relationship exists should not come as a surprise, though, given the widely understood and accepted premise that positive experiences can have just as significant of an impact on our lives. The stress associated with these adverse childhood experiences and other negative situations and experiences that could happen to somebody can be catastrophic to a person’s ability to function and regulate their body and mind. Experiencing these stressors during these developmentally significant years places undo stress on the individual and forces their body and mind to live in a state of heightened anxiety, fear, and uncertainty through the body’s instinctual response to perceived danger and threats. Living in this stress-induced state for prolonged periods of time disrupts the natural balance within the body because the consistent exposure to stressful stimuli activates the limbic system of the brain and causes the body to start producing elevated levels of cortisol, the primary “stress hormone.” When this hormone is produced for extended lengths of time, the body and mind cannot regulate correctly because other necessary hormones are produced at decreased rates. The body and mind are unable to regulate it as efficiently and effectively as they would under supportive circumstances.

            After taking all of this into account, it is important to understand how prior experiences, even those dating back to childhood, can dramatically impact a person’s ability to function effectively unless these traumas and stressors are managed properly. When managing the stress from these experiences, there are many things that can be done independently, such as healthy dietary habits, physical exercise, and engaging in activities that elicit positive emotions and the production of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone, as long as these activities are not negatively impacting the body or others. However, at times, seeking assistance from professionals may be necessary, depending upon the trauma(s) experienced by an individual throughout their lifetime, to safely address and work through them while having support from others who may not have been present throughout their lifetime.

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