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Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences

Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences

In 1997, physician-researchers Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda developed a process for health care providers to better understand how early trauma affects emotional, mental, and physical wellness. Known as the adverse childhood experiences profile (ACEs), this standardized approach provides critical insight into the biological and environmental factors that often contribute to alcohol use disorder (AUD) and substance use disorder (SUD) development later in life.

Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences

Felitti and Anda teamed up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente to categorize traumatic childhood experiences from birth to age 17 into three groups: abuse, neglect, and household challenges, which include:

  • Experiencing violence to themselves or people close to them; emotional, physical, and sexual abuse; or various forms of neglect
  • Witnessing home– or community–based violence
  • Having a member of the family attempt or die by suicide

The CDC states, “also included are aspects of the child’s environment that can undermine their sense of safety, stability, and bonding, such as growing up in a household with:

  • Substance use problems
  • Mental health problems
  • Instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison.”

The above examples aren’t the only traumatic experiences a child might face. A few others include: 

  • Being in the foster care system
  • Bullying
  • Homelessness
  • Surviving and recovering from a severe accident
  • War and other conflicts 

ACEs categories offer a framework by which mental health professionals can have a clearer picture of what someone—whether a child or an adult—might need to address before progressing with wellness efforts. 

The ACEs Quiz asks 10 questions about traumatic childhood experiences. One point is given for each experience—the higher the score, the greater the risk of health and social problems. According to the CDC, “about 64 percent of U.S. adults reported they had experienced at least one type of ACE before age 18, and nearly 1 in 6 (17.3 percent) reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.”

How ACEs Affect Us

The Cleveland Clinic states that “while traumatic events can cause harm to a person at any age, trauma to a child is more severe, as their brain is still growing. Specifically, ACEs target a child’s memory (hippocampus) and areas of the brain that help them think logically (prefrontal cortex) and process emotions (amygdala).” Because severe or long-term stress keeps a developing brain in survival mode for an extended period of time, “this weakens those parts of [a child’s] brain and influences the way they react to certain situations as they grow into an adult.”

The Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University notes that ACEs cause an individual to have more “toxic stress,” which describes “excessive activation of stress response systems on a child’s developing brain, as well as the immune system, metabolic regulatory systems, and cardiovascular system.” If a child has long-term exposure to extreme chronic stressors without the support of caring adults, this frequently leads to “negative adult behavioral and health outcomes.”

The CDC indicates that “ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance use problems in adulthood. ACEs can also negatively impact education, job opportunities, and earning potential.” Additionally, the American Society for Positive Care of Children indicates that if someone has an ACEs score of 4 or more, chronic emotional, mental, and physical health issues, as well as the potential for suicide, increase exponentially without proper intervention and care.

Uncover the Root Causes of Addiction

If you suspect ACEs are an underlying factor to maladaptive behavior and substance misuse, it’s essential to get progressive medical treatment. 

ACEs Too High also notes that positive childhood experiences, or PCEs, is one aspect of intervention that helps counterbalance the extremities of ACEs. ACEs Aware adds that there are many helpful clinical approaches for adults to learn about and then effectively manage this early trauma, such as: 

  • Working with trauma-informed care providers.
  • Using strategies “that help regulate the stress response, including:
    • Supportive relationships, including with caregivers (for children), other family members, and peers
    • High-quality, sufficient sleep
    • Balanced nutrition
    • Regular physical activity
    • Mindfulness and meditation
    • Experiencing nature
    • Mental health care, including psychotherapy or psychiatric care, and substance use disorder treatment, when indicated.”
  • Creating methods that help highlight a growth mindset by validating existing strengths and protective factors.

Find Comprehensive Care at Ivory Plains

There are many layers to effective addiction rehabilitation and recovery—it’s not enough to simply physically detoxify your system of alcohol and drugs. At our addiction rehabilitation program in Adair, Iowa, the structure of our residential and partial hospitalization programs introduces you to many aspects of self-awareness and self-care. Regardless of what happened in the past, you now have the power as an adult to heal and learn new methods for how to take control of your life and navigate it more effectively. Speak to a member of our admissions team today to learn how we can help.

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