Adverse Childhood Experiences

If you are on a journey of healing you have probably picked up a self-help book or two, worked with a counselor, went to yoga and meditated, you spent time in nature, heck you even took your supplements and ate healthy. I’m sure you have probably done all you can in order to feel ok in your body and in this world.  Yet, you still feel deep sadness, or anger, or frustration, or anxiety, or…….it goes on doesn’t it?

If you are like me you are pretty self-aware. You know that growing up was hard, but you’ve come to terms with your childhood and your parents. You know that your parents loved you and tried to do the best they could. School was painful, but it was painful for everyone right? Sure you were bullied, but that’s not a big deal, most people can’t get through childhood without being bullied.  And yet, here you are, with all of this self-awareness and struggling. Why?  Why can’t I/we/you just be normal? What is wrong that I am not seeing?

What I didn’t realize is that what happened to me in my childhood (I have an ACE score of 7, you’ll get information about how to take the ACE test further down the page) actually changed the architecture of my brain. My experiences altered the expression of genes that control stress hormone output, which triggers an overactive inflammatory stress response for life. Did you get that?  For Life.  In short this means, toxic childhood stress changed my brain making it harder for me to handle stress.

I had no clue that my emotional biography became my physical biography, leading to deep biophysical changes. This is important to know because the two together write much of the script for how I will live my life. I literally did not have the brain capacity to be a “normal” adult. My brain was wired for depression, pain, sadness, suffering and illness.

Adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACE, are one of the most important pieces of information I have come across on my journey to emotional healing and wellness. Did you know that childhood adversity can lead to a far wider range of physical and emotional health issues than overt symptoms of PTSD? Learning about ACEs showed me that my pain and suffering is not my fault. I was not choosing it. I was doing the best I could with the tools I had.

I could say my emotional challenges were my parents fault, but really it wasn’t. See the thing about people who grow up with a high ACE score (mine is a 7 out of 10) come from parents who themselves grew up with a high ACE score and so on. It’s like the saying “hurt people, hurt people,” or it’s hard to give what you never received. Of course I have a high ACE score. My mother, who caused most of my childhood suffering, probably had an ACE score of 10, maybe 9. She isn’t alive because she died of a drug overdose in her early 40's, but I know from the stories she told me her childhood was hell.  She truly did her best and was able to shelter me from certain painful experiences that she had to endure.  I’ve always known that she was parenting me much better than she was parented, but I didn’t know that she was still totally failing and essentially ripping my childhood from me.

This information taught me that childhood adversity hurts our physical and mental health. It puts us at risk for learning disabilities, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, depression, obesity, suicide, substance abuse, violence, failed relationships, poor parenting and for some early death. Although I have not suffered from most of these categories, I can see the truth of this in my mother. Take out the obesity, autoimmune, and cardiovascular piece, the rest describe the challenges she faced in her short life. My challenges in life were more about feelings and emotions. I always felt so alone, like no one saw me or even cared to see me. I had a hard time connecting with my peers and adults. I was seen as a negative person who had a bad attitude.  I had a bad attitude because I was in pain. No one in my life knew what was happening at home. I was quietly suffering alone. I deeply wanted connection and relationships, but I was deeply scared of it.  I suffered from deep shame, anxiety, depression, loneliness, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse.  Does any of this sound familiar to you?

There is a lot more to learn about ACEs and the impact they have on our life. A great book to read that highlights this topic and even gives tangible ways to rewire our brain is "Childhood Disrupted" by Donna Jackson Nakazawa.

Below are a few facts and pieces of information I pulled from Childhood Disrupted to highlight the issue of ACEs.

  •  One of the hundred genes that are altered due to chronic childhood stress is the gene that helps manage stress. This gene manages stress by “signaling the cortisol response to quiet down so that the body can return to a calm state after a stressor. But because this gene was damaged, the body couldn’t rein in its heightened stress response”

  •  When a young child faces emotional adversity or stressors, cells in the brain release a hormone that actually shrinks the size of the brain’s developing hippocampus-altering his or her ability to process emotion and mange stress. This matters emotionally because people with high ACEs have a low set point of well-being. This means as adults our moods are fluctuating between anxiety, sadness, and fear-reacting to life without resilience.  It’s a cat chasing its tail. “Epigenetics changes in life cause inflammatory chemicals to increase. Chronic unpredictable stress sends microglia off kilter. Microglia murder neurons. Neurons die, synapses are less able to connect. Microglia proliferate and create a state of neuro-inflammation. Essential gray matter areas of the brain lose volume and tone. White matter-the myelin in the brain that allows for synapses to connect between neurons-is lost. This lack of brain tone impairs thought processes, making negative thoughts, fears, reactivity, and worries more likely over time. An uberalert, fearful brain leads to increased negative reactions and thoughts-creating more inflammatory hormones and chemicals that lead to more microglial dysfunction and pruning and chronic inflammation in the brain. The cycle continues”

  •  A history of insecure attachment also affects what kind of parents we become. Kids whose parents had not soothed them effectively behaved quite differently in their grown-up relationships from kids who’d had warmer, more supportive parents. Young adults who’d been less attached to their parents when small had more trouble managing their negative, reactive feelings and recovering from conflict with their adult partners.

  •  It makes sense that people who repeatedly make poor decisions in choosing partners and have troubled relationships keep repeating their mistakes. Their motivations are as biological as they are emotional. Their brains didn’t receive the love needed to foster the critical neural interconnections that create secure, loving attachment, They keep bumping up against the same neurobiological deficits, over and over again.

  •   “The beauty of epigenetics is that it’s reversible, and the beauty of the brain is that it’s plastic. There are many ways that we can immune-rehabilitate the brain to overcome early negative epigenetic changes so that we can respond normally to both pleasure and pain. The brain can restore itself. We can heal those early scares to get back to who it is we really are who we might have been had we not faced so much adversity in the first place.”

Now that you have an idea of what ACEs are, it’s time to take the ACE test. What is your score?

If you too had a difficult childhood please read Childhood Disrupted. Educating yourself about how trauma and adversity changes the brain and body is very healing. This book just might change your life.