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  • Sara

What We Know About ACEs

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

Trauma can affect us over long periods of time. It can have a profound psychological and physiological impact that lasts years and even an entire lifetime. One’s nervous system and brain chemistry can change, and chronic pain can develop along with other notable symptoms. Therefore, significant trauma that occurs during childhood can be carried with us well into adulthood. Researchers have named these severe childhood traumas Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs.

There are a wide range of ACEs, from food insecurity to abuse and neglect. Being discriminated against, marginalized or disenfranchised, living in poverty, living with intergenerational trauma, witnessing violence or being in an otherwise chaotic home environment (i.e., having a parent who is a substance abuser or a caregiver who is incarcerated) are also considered ACEs experiences. While there are markers of common causes of ACES that have been identified for the purposes of measuring their impact, there are so many ways in which trauma can present in childhood. In fact, trauma reactions are so individualized that the level of traumatization is actually based on the individual's own perception of the situation and ability to cope with it.

Tests can be performed to determine the number of ACEs an individual has based on the most widely reported trauma incidents, and this number often correlates to their risk level for poor health outcomes.

When trauma happens at a young age, impacting a nervous system that isn’t fully developed and during a time in which a person is particularly vulnerable, it may leave one feeling scared and ashamed to speak up. Children, by default, learn to avoid or ignore the influence these experiences have on them, and these learned behavioral patterns can be hard to unlearn as an adult.

There are a few things that we can do to start addressing the ACEs we’ve experienced or those experienced by the people we love. The first step is to raise awareness. Just as we work to raise awareness around mental health in general, we also need to work to educate the public about the lingering effects of childhood trauma. This will help to break the stigma around the topic and allow for people to feel comfortable opening up about their struggles. We may not have a time machine that allows us to go back and erase times of adversity, but we can treat the challenges that come along with ACEs and support one another in those efforts. We can become trauma-informed, respect each other’s lived experience, and provide a space for ourselves and others heal sustainably.

Conquering ACEs also begins with building resilience. There are proven ways to do just this. Some strategies include:

Building close and stable relationships with others who are viewed as safe and secure.

Identifying and cultivating a sense of purpose.

Improving social connectivity.

Engaging in opportunities that allow for one’s strengths to shine through.

Seeking socioeconomic support.

Deciding to take on volunteer work and/or a community-interest venture. Philanthropy has been proven to increase feel-good chemicals in the brain, enhancing feelings of self-worth.

For adults who've carried trauma with them since childhood, psychodynamic therapy may be incredibly helpful for breaking the bonds of trauma once and for all. While other techniques are great for developing short-term, in the moment coping strategies, psychodynamic work involves digging deep to uncover the source of the trauma, unpacking this, identifying unmet needs and inner child wounds, and uncovering relational patterns that have repeated throughout the lifespan as a result of ACES.

Yes, this work can be difficult. It can be scary to consider confronting past traumas and learning about how they've impacted mental and emotional development and well-being. However, homing in on the core conflict and working through its effects can be helpful for developing a better understanding of self. When we understand ourselves at a deep level, we understand what we'd like to change and can work with a therapist to pinpoint ways in which to do this in order to experience sustainable healing.

Shorter term therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) aren't deep dives but they will help you identify in-the-moment interventions to use when you're feeling overwhelmed as a result of the effects of ACES. Your therapist will likely work with you to identify cognitive distortions and other unproductive ways of thinking, reframe negative thought patterns, develop a self-care plan, a safety plan, and opposite action behaviors to engage in that are healthier than learned ones. The combination of psychodynamic therapist and CBT or MB-CT will help you work through the root causes of present-day thoughts, feelings and behaviors and help you develop new habits to cope effectively.

Think you or a loved one may be struggling with the post-trauma impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences? You’re not alone, and you don’t have to suffer in silence. A counselor can help address ACEs in a safe space, pinpoint the core conflict within, and develop effective coping mechanisms to break unhealthy patterns and relieve distress. You can make the choice to get unstuck today!

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