The painful truth about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
Last updated: Apr 28, 2020
Childhood experiences have a tremendous, lifelong impact on our health and the quality of our lives. Sadly, the more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) the worse the outcomes.
We are born as a blank slate and respond to our environment like a sponge, absorbing everything in and trying to make sense of it all. We learn that objects have names, like chair and table, that we have a name, and ultimately an identity.
We unconsciously create a massive filing system in our minds based on what we absorb in, categorizing everything, creating beliefs and what it means to be "me". If we are repeatedly told messaging that implies worthlessness we will file it all together and adopt the belief "I am worthless." The subconscious mind is the storehouse for all of our imprinting -- our beliefs, emotions, behaviours, values, and memories.
The most impressionable years that set the template for our lives extends from the womb to about 7 years old. During this phase we subconsciously build most of the lens through which we will continue to view the world. Experiences beyond this age certainly continue to shape our perceptions of the world and ACEs encompass any traumatic experiences that occur from 0-17 years of age.
The great news is that our lens and perspective of the world can change for the better. This can happen either deliberately, through personal development work and therapy (such as hypnotherapy), or inadvertently, when another strong emotional imprint is set that causes a positive life pivot (such as a near death experience that reframes perspective on life).
In my clinical hypnotherapy practice where I look to uncover and release the root cause of limiting beliefs and problematic behaviours, invariably the client finds the origin began anywhere from 0-7 years old.
What exactly are ACEs?
ACEs are a toxic stress that results from the excessive activation of the stress-response system. This toxic stress can change brain development and affect such things as attention, decision-making, learning, and response to stress.
Types of ACEs include abuse (physical, mental or emotional), neglect (physical or emotional) and household dysfunction (violence between parents, parental separation, substance misuse, mental illness or criminal behaviour).
How devastating can these adverse experiences be?
"Children growing up with toxic stress may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships. They may also have unstable work histories as adults and struggle with finances, jobs, and depression throughout life. These effects can also be passed on to their own children. Some children may face further exposure to toxic stress from historical and ongoing traumas due to systemic racism or the impacts of poverty resulting from limited educational and economic opportunities."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The impact of ACEs is huge. Not only does it impact the development of the child and their future, but it impacts society as a whole.
A large meta-analysis published in 2019 evaluated ACEs across Europe and North America and their results are disconcerting. They found:
- In both Europe and North America alike, almost 1 in 4 people had one ACE
- About 19% of Europeans had two or more ACEs, while in North America that number climbed to about 35%
- ACEs were found to attribute to about 30% of cases of anxiety and 40% of cases of depression in North America, and more than a quarter of both conditions in Europe
- Total annual costs attributable to ACEs were estimated to be US $581 billion in Europe and $748 billion in North America
- More than 75% of these costs arose in individuals with two or more ACEs
- Reducing ACEs by 10% could equate to annual savings of around $100 billion
ACEs have detrimental consequences leading to increased health issues (ie: mental illness, cancer, heart disease, obesity) , substance abuse, smoking, missed work days and shortened lifespan (people with 6 or more ACEs die on average 20 years earlier than those without any ACEs). Check out the infographic below for a detailed summary.
What can we do about it?
As we like to say in naturopathic medicine, "prevention is cure". Creating and sustaining safe, stable, nurturing environments and relationships for all children and families can prevent ACEs and help all children reach their full potential. This also has significant economical benefits and would help relieve pressures on the health care system.
Adults with a history of ACEs also have the ability to create positive change for themselves. By digging in and doing the work it's entirely possible to release negative imprints and limiting beliefs, and reshape the future. Hypnotherapy is such a wonderful tool for this because it works directly at the level where the problem was created in the first place: the subconscious level. Creating a new path into the future that holds possibility and opportunity is liberating and can bring with it a ripple effect that positively impacts children, friends and family.
Exposure to emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, and household dysfunction during childhood has a strong relationship to various negative outcomes including a shortened lifespan of up to 20 years.
We cannot erase past traumas, but we can work to prevent ACEs from happening. We also have the power and ability to free ourselves from the negative imprinting around past traumas enabling us to pivot towards a more positive future.
References & Resources
Bellis MA, Hughes K, Ford K, Ramos Rodriguez G, Sethi D, Passmore J. Life course health consequences and associated annual costs of adverse childhood experiences across Europe and North America: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Public Health. 2019 Oct;4(10):e517-e528. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7098477/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/aces-and-toxic-stress-frequently-asked-questions/
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. https://www.rwjf.org/en/library/collections/aces.html