We know that what happens to us as children matters. We still feel hurt by experiences we had growing up, and have trouble escaping the mistakes our parents made, whether it’s through repeating the same patterns we saw or because we can’t seem to get away from troubling memories. But is it possible that our negative early life experiences could also have an impact on our health and physical wellbeing today?
Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs is a revolutionary psychological research study that was conducted in the 1990’s by Dr. Vincent Felitti and Dr. Robert Anda at the CDC and Kaiser Permanente Health Appraisal Center in San Diego, California. This study looked at the relationship between ACEs, health outcomes in adults, and long-term wellbeing (Anda et al.,1999).
ACEs are broken down into three main categories: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction. Abuse includes physical, emotional, or sexual; neglect can be physical or emotional; household dysfunction can include having a family member with a mental illness, substance abuse in the home, a parent who was treated violently, an incarcerated family member, or parental divorce (Felitti et al., 1998).
The ACE Questionnaire
The ACE Questionnaire includes a total of ten questions with several examples below:
“Did you often feel that …
No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special?
Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?”
“Did a parent or other adult in the household often …
Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you?
Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?”
“Was a household member depressed or mentally ill
Did a household member attempt suicide?”
Scores are then added up to find the total ACE score. If you have an ACE score of zero, there is very little to no health risk from ACEs. But ACEs are linked to long-term physical health issues; if you have an ACE score of four or more, you may be at higher risk for compromised physical, emotional and relationship health. Some of these issues include drug use, liver cancer, lung and heart disease, depression and anxiety, violent behaviors, being victimized, and suspicion and
fear in relationships (Philadelphia Urban ACEs study, 2013).
According to the American Psychiatric Association (2000), ACEs can also lead to individuals using unhealthy strategies to deal with stress and life challenges such as not trusting others, substance use, smoking, dissociating, high-risk sexual activity, overeating, suppressing memories of being abused, suicide attempts, etc.
Hope for Healing
But remember, ACE scores are not predictors of your future — they don’t account for yourgenetics, your eating habits, exercise, or other health factors. ACE scores can serve as a guideline for possible health risks in the future. Likewise, ACE scores don’t take into account the positive and resilience-building experiences that a person can have in early life that help to protect against the impacts of childhood trauma.
Having even one significant, caring person in your early life may dramatically decrease the life-long negative impacts of childhood trauma. This adult could include a coach who encouraged you and believed the best in you, an aunt who took the time to listen to you, or a teacher who gave you extra love and attention. Building resilience can span a lifetime, and a key factor is having close, safe relationships to support growth and resilience in the face of trauma. Trauma informed therapy with an emphasis on Mindfulness, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can also be helpful for
adults who are looking to process their past.
If you are currently struggling with past childhood experiences and how they could be impacting you today, it may be a good idea to connect with one of our skilled counselors at Symmetry Counseling today. You can contact them at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of Mental disorders (4th. Ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.
Anda, R. F., Croft, J. B., Felitti, V. J., Nordenberg, D., Giles, W. H., Williamson, D. F., & Giovino, G. A. (1999). Adverse childhood experiences and smoking
during adolescence and adulthood. Journal of the American Medical Association, 282, 1652-1658.
Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., et al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245-258.
Philadelphia Urban ACE Survey (September, 2013). Findings from the Philadelphia Urban ACE Survey. Retrieved from http://www.instituteforsafefamilies.org/philadelphiaurban-ace-study on July 31, 2019.