Adverse Childhood experiences (ACE)
Studies have shown that people who were exposed to adverse experiences in childhood were more at risk for chronic health and social conditions later in life. Adverse childhood experiences are described as: stressful or traumatic situations, including, abuse, maltreatment, parental abandonment, substance abuse by parents, poverty and exposure to crime.
Overly and prolonged exposure to these conditions result in disruption of neurodevelopment in children. It can literally change the brain in ways that are unhealthy and damaging. Significant parts are the brain become affected, interfering with the ability to regulate emotions, cope with frustration, contribute to increased aggressive behaviors and learning problems. This could possibly explain the increase of disruptive behavior disorders in children. There are some studies that connect attention deficit disorder to the chronic exposure to stress.
Other findings include ACE connection to substance abuse, domestic violence, depression, anxiety, obesity, and early morbidity.
Additionally, there is a correlation between adverse childhood experiences and physical health conditions. Many people with autoimmune disorders, heart disease, cancer, migraines have been exposed to chronic stress in childhood. It is clear that time does not heal all wounds and that intervention is often needed to decrease the effects of earlier negative experiences.
Here is a link to the ACE questionnaire. It might be interesting to see how you score.
What are the implications for parents and adults who have elevated adverse childhood experiences?
It is important that medical professionals become familiar with the implications for chronic stress and assess for it in children. Parent education can include ways to reduce a child’s exposure. While it might not be possible to change some risk factors, such as poverty, parents can help to mitigate the effects by helping children to cope positively. Also, parents can be coached to manage events in their lives so as to lessen the impact on their children. A parent aware of the negative implications might also find increased motivation to change things within their power. For example, getting out of a domestic violence situation.
Schools often serve as safe havens for children and thus, having positive, attentive adults is extremely valuable to mitigating the impact of negative experiences.
For adults who score significantly on the ACE test, it is important to make immediate changes in one’s life before faced with negative health conditions resulting from chronic exposure to stress. Physical exercise is vitally important. It regulates the body and mind and is the best way to prevent most chronic diseases. Walking on a daily basis is an extremely efficient means of getting exercise. Seeking mental health consultation is important too. Often adults exposed to adverse child experiences, failed to learn how to cope in healthy ways. They are often in the fight or flight mode with the stress response on constant activation. Learning how to cope better, relax and find problem solving strategies is invaluable in improving overall health.
Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool in lessening the impact of negative childhood experiences. It has positive effects on the brain and teaches the practitioner how to tolerate difficult feelings and experiences without feeling the need to flee them.
“A new paper published this month in the journal Social Neuroscience provides some answers to this question. Researchers at the University Cape Town in South Africa asked people who had undergone an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) intervention to perform a 12 minute mindfulness meditation while their brains were scanned using fMRI. During the meditation, people were asked to open their awareness to present-moment bodily sensations, thoughts and emotions without judging or reacting to these mental and physical events.
When the researchers compared brain activation during mindfulness meditation to brain activation during a control task where the meditators randomly generate numbers in their head, they found that several brain areas associated with the monitoring of bodily states – including the insula and the prefrontal cortex – were actually less active during meditation. Interestingly, damage to the insula has been linked to less intense emotional reactions. Less activity in the insula during meditation, then, likely translates into less reactivity.”1
Journaling is helpful too. Studies have shown that 15 minutes of writing about traumatic experiences can decrease the symptoms and decrease the physical implications that can result from trauma. Journaling can improve emotional literacy
Having a healthy support network is helpful too. It decreases isolation and creates a sense of connectedness.