Though not all sessions focus on our childhood experiences, there is an understanding in most mental health practices of how our upbringing has a huge effect on whom we become, how we react to certain situations, how we love or reject others, and how we experience the world.
The importance of our childhood environment cannot be understated. Some of us are fortunate enough to be raised in stable and loving households, but some of us are not that fortunate.
What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
It has been discovered that Adverse Childhood Experiences, also called ACEs, have a huge impact on children and who those children become in their adult years. ACEs can be described as those potentially traumatic events that can occur in a child’s life before they reach the age of eighteen years. Extensive studies have shown that if ACEs are left unaddressed, they will lead to various forms of social, mental, or physical health problems.
Depending on different environmental factors, children can suffer trauma because of neglect, violence, a caregiver’s struggle with substance abuse, a mental illness, or long-held generational ties and strongholds. This intense exposure to adversity causes toxic stress in children.
In the face of danger, our body prepares to fight, flight, or freeze. This response is adaptive and life-saving in the right situation, however, if children are exposed to constant stressors, this response becomes maladaptive and health-damaging.
An example would be a child who is so constantly exposed to trauma or toxic events that when they are in the midst of one, the child continues on with whatever activity they are doing, as if what is happening around them is typical healthy behavior, thus numbing the fight, flight, or freeze reaction.
As impacts are further discussed below, that numbing, which limits healthy interpersonal discernment, is one of the reasons why adults find themselves in damaging relationships. Their concept of love and affection is tainted and distorted which perpetuates generational strongholds until they are effectively broken. It has been documented that the more ACEs someone has suffered, the greater risk for all the problems mentioned above.
The ACE categories are as follows:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Mother is treated violently.
- Loss of a parent for any reason.
- Mental illness in the home, including suicidal behavior or institutionalization.
- Substance abuse in the household.
- Criminal behavior in the household, including the incarceration of a household member.
Impact of ACEs on adults.
Having gone through adverse childhood experiences affects a person as they grow up and try to interact with the world around them. How we are raised and how we experience life as children basically leaves a map of how our life can be as adults.
Without intervention and support, this trajectory is detrimental. Adults that have gone through adverse childhood experiences are impacted in the following ways:
Mental health impact. The effects of ongoing and excessive exposure to stress hormones on mental health come as no surprise to us. We are all aware of the fact that our mental well-being can be affected greatly by our upbringing, whether good or bad.
Children brought up in high-stress situations may live in a state of constant production of stress hormones. These excess levels of stress hormones trigger shrinkage to the part of the brain responsible for our cognitive abilities, namely, learning, impulse control, decision-making, and memory. This has tremendous effects on the developing child and subsequently on the adult.
Apart from cognitive abilities, those who have suffered severe trauma as children are more likely to develop mental health issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicidal ideations.
Physical /medical impact. The health status of those who have gone through adverse childhood experiences is highly compromised. This is attributed to how trauma and adversity affect the development of the body and the brain. These poor health outcomes can be a result of excess amounts of cortisol and adrenaline that are in the body.
These stress hormones lead to high blood pressure and heart problems. Stress hormones also raise glucose levels which means that they will be at risk for type 2 diabetes. Other health issues caused by high ACE scores are cancer, auto-immune diseases, strokes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
The physical health of those that have gone through a traumatic childhood is compromised, as their health is likely to suffer. In the studies done on the effect of ACEs on our physical health, it was concluded that they are more prone to die prematurely. Those with a high ACE score are more prone to suicide, drug addiction, diabetes, alcohol abuse, sexual promiscuity, and other risky lifestyle behaviors that compromise health.
Adverse childhood experiences and substance abuse. Those who have experienced trauma in childhood are more likely to start experimenting with drugs and alcohol earlier than their peers. During these early years, alcohol and substances are used as a coping mechanism, a way to fit in, or trying to numb the emotional pain they face daily.
This early onset of substance abuse can lead to addiction in adult life. Addiction is also synonymous with many of the mental health problems that are a result of adverse childhood experiences. Those suffering from depression or anxiety might self-medicate through alcohol or drugs to lessen their symptoms or try to control their behavior.
Social and relational impact. Having grown up in adverse environments renders one in a space where they might struggle greatly with creating and maintaining supportive and loving relationships. Growing up, they never knew what it meant to be safe, to be loved, to be valued, and to be seen. They grow up with very low self-esteem which can make it hard to build relationships and participate in society.
Our attachment styles are mostly formed by our early childhood experiences, and this can be a huge determinant in developing romantic relationships. Those with anxious, avoidant, or fearful-avoidant attachment styles may have suffered some form of neglect or trauma in childhood. Also, a huge component of struggling with relationships can be attributed to substance abuse. It is hard to maintain relationships when struggling with an addiction of any kind.
Healing the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences.Any road to healing starts with understanding the problems at hand. Regardless of a patient’s presenting problem, it is important to discuss and heal from childhood trauma to create lasting mental stability, which will reduce future distress.
Discussing those traumas during the assessment phase of counseling will help determine the best type of treatment your counselor will administer. There are many therapeutic techniques used to treat childhood trauma, below are just a few:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
- Cognitive Processing Therapy
- Lifespan Integration
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy
- Component-Based Psychotherapy
Having gone through adverse childhood experiences does not mean that your life will forever be affected. By gaining knowledge and understanding while working with professionals and a healthy support system to focus on their healing, most people do recover from the effects of childhood trauma. On top of counseling and therapy, one can use these other exercises to strengthen their journey and to find comfort and support:
- Prayer and meditation.
- Regular exercises for fitness.
- Volunteering or doing meaningful work.
- Finding a loving church community.
- Going to rehab if struggling with an addiction.
- Saying “no” to new commitments or minimizing them when overburdened.
- Spending time in nature.
- Building and maintaining social connections.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a great start. The amazing thing about healing our trauma is that we will not pass it on to the next generation. When we are set free from the past, we become more informed of how we should be around children, whether in our parenting capacities, as teachers, or as community leaders.
Reach out for help.
Trauma in childhood can be hard to deal with on our own or even with someone that is not trauma-informed. If anything in this article rings true to your experience and you would like to learn more, we are here for you. We have trained counselors waiting to walk this journey with you.
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