Most people have a vague understanding of the basic psychological principles of traumatic experiences.  We are often able to draw clear lines from a traumatic incident or childhood to later adverse circumstances in people’s lives.  Emerging research, however, is beginning to paint a larger picture of how truly common childhood adversity is, as well as the many implications these experiences can have in adulthood.  While some forms of childhood adversity are more obvious, such as abuse and severe neglect, others are more insidious, as well as far more common. Having parents that divorce or abuse alcohol, for example, are common experiences that can have lingering effects on a child’s developing brain.  Post childhood adversity syndrome is often the result of these brain changes and can create a wide array of physical and mental symptoms that make health, joy, and relationships difficult to maintain in adulthood.

What are ACEs?

Adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs, refer to events or circumstances that occur in childhood that significantly increase the risk of developing several physical and mental health complications as an adult.  This may include physical, mental, and sexual abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, substance abuse in the home, parental death or separation, as well as any other experience that impacts brain development in childhood.  Studies conducted to understand the impact of ACEs concluded that with each additional ACE, the risks increase for the individual. People who report having three or more ACEs, for example, are far more likely to suffer from disease and mental illness later in life.  A study conducted this year found that childhood adversity is associated with the malfunction of multiple stress response systems, and causes oxidative stress. Oxidative stress refers to an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body that lowers the immune system and increases the risk of many diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.  

The oxidative stress found to be associated with many physical diseases has also been linked to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, as well as a heightened risk of substance abuse.  While it has long been understood that childhood trauma can lead to mental health challenges, we are beginning to demonstrate how this happens on a chemical level and measure unique risks for individuals based on the ACE history.  Researchers have developed an ACE Questionnaire, easily accessible online, that can help you determine your level of childhood adversity and share it with your doctor or mental health professional. By recognizing ACEs, patients can better understand the trajectory of their lives, and begin to heal from past trauma.  This process can be incredibly healing because it can allow the individual to make sense of their personal challenges and feel empowered to create meaningful change.

Recovering from ACEs

There are several techniques that can be used to promote healing in those living with unresolved ACEs and lower their risk of future mental and physical health issues.  Writing about your childhood, for example, can help you to process the events and emotions of your past. One study found that writing about strong emotions surrounding childhood experiences can improve focus and cognitive performance, as well as improve immune function.  Active mindfulness techniques, such as those practiced during yoga, have been found to restore balance to the fight or flight response, which is often working overtime in the brains of people with ACEs. This can lower anxiety and depression and decrease the need for destructive coping mechanisms.  Qualified therapists use many effective strategies in helping patients recover from ACEs including Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and Electroencephalographic Neurofeedback, during which the patient learns to influence their thoughts by observing their own brain activity. 

Another important aspect of recovering from any disease of the mind or body is the development of healthy human connection.  People with ACEs that are affecting their ability to thrive physically or emotionally may find comfort in connecting with those with similar childhood experiences.  This may come in the form of support groups, or in the simple discovery of a kindred spirit. Close relationships with family, friends, and partners boost the production of hormones that regulate mood and reduce inflammation in the body. 

ACEs and Addiction

Studies continue to confirm that ACE rates are far higher among addicted individuals than in the general population.  Many people who suffer from the lasting repercussions of ACEs turn to drugs or alcohol to manage their emotional pain, and may also self-medicate with harmful substances when dealing with chronic pain and illness.  Unfortunately, this vicious cycle often results in addiction, which ultimately leads to further complications and adversity, as well as deteriorating mental and physical health. By seeking recovery from addiction at a quality treatment center, individuals suffering from ACEs can begin to work through the pain of their past and improve their chances of a happy and healthy future.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction and mental health issues, now is the time to reach out for help.  At Burning Tree, you will find knowledgeable and compassionate professionals that structure treatment to fit individual needs, including the identification of co-occurring disorders.  Through accountability and commitment to the 12 steps, each client will develop the tools to create a sober lifestyle and find lasting recovery. We specialize in the treatment of chronic relapsers and believe with the right support you can experience true and permanent healing.  For more information, call us now at 866-287-2877.