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Understanding adverse childhood experiences

Published in For the Health of It Author: Pam Beckering, MS, LPCC

I met “Dennis” several years ago when I was practicing as a therapist. He was coming to see me because he was struggling with life and was getting tired of being him. Talking with him, I found out that Dennis was married, was not able to work due to some chronic health issues, and was not to function in his daily living activities because whenever he smelled a hot smell, he would have a panic attack. As I learned more about him, I found out that he had a close call with death and was recovering from drug and alcohol use. He had a tumor that was residing in his abdomen that could not be removed due to its proximity to vital organs. As he continued to tell me his story over many sessions, I learned that he had been involved in a fire where a family member died and he barely escaped. He revealed that he had been abused by his mother but felt that it was deserved.

Having just been through two classes on trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), I started to make some connections. Was it possible that the trauma that he had suffered as a child was affecting him now? So how could his past trauma contribute to his health, mental well-being and substance use?

ACEs were first studied in 1997 by Kaiser Permante and two scientists from the Centers for Disease Control. They studied over 17,000 individuals who were mostly middle aged, white, and college educated. What they found was that if someone had experienced some form of abuse, neglect, living with a parent that had mental illness, domestic violence that occurred between their parents or their parents were not together, that when they became older, they had a significant chance of suffering from chronic health issues, mental illness and substance use.

Further study has shown that babies become hard-wired by their experiences, that certain genes are turned on or off and that each area of the brain is sensitive to toxic stress during different times of development. This can happen any time there is continued or frequent exposure to toxic stress or trauma. It can look like parents engaging in intense arguments, a mom that is suffering from mental illness and struggling with daily living activities or a parent that suffers from substance use. Parents and families that live in poverty or having a parent that is in prison along with a mom that does not engage in nurturing activities with their baby, can cause physical changes in the brain that contribute to learning disabilities and physical health issues.

Someone who has experienced two or more ACEs has a 390 percent greater chance of COPD; 1,220 percent greater chance of suicide and 490 percent greater chance chance of depression. ACE scores have been correlated with cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, stroke, depression and anxiety. Someone who has experienced six or more ACEs has a significant chance of shortening their life span by 20 years. The scary part is that families can suffer from something called intergenerational trauma. This is where our DNA is changed over time due to traumatic events that have happened to our family over the generations. Native Americans are an example of intergenerational trauma, but there are individual families — no matter their origin — that have suffered from this.

Wow, that is depressing. Is there anything that a person can do?

The good news is that our brains (and bodies) are amazing organs and can be rewired at any time during our lives! The most important factor for developing resiliency in a child is to have a loving, nurturing, supportive adult in their lives. This can include teachers, librarians, grandparents, neighbors, coaches, and mentors. We can rewire our brains and create new paths by building our resiliency. Sometimes the physical damage to our immune system and hormones is reversed. Other times, we develop chronic diseases.

But what is resiliency?

Resiliency is the ability to rebound from adverse events. Most of the time when we hear the word resiliency, we think about deep breathing, meditation, yoga and mindfulness. But that is only the beginning of resiliency. True resiliency is diving down into our depths and confronting those negative thoughts, events and beliefs that we have hung onto throughout our lives. Once we have changed the messages that our brains are giving us, we have created new paths. The older that we get, the longer it takes to change the hard-wired paths in our brain, but science tells us that we can do it at any age.

We are fortunate enough to have an amazing resilience program within CentraCare. It is the Bounce Back Project. If you haven’t heard about it yet, go to It will show ways that you can do right now to feel better about yourself. If you need to talk to someone, please contact your Employee Assistance Program or Behavioral Health.

There is hope for those who have experienced a toxic or traumatic childhood. There is nothing to be ashamed about. It is not who we are, but a piece of us and if not changed, could lead to physical and mental health problems later in life.

Further information about Trauma and ACEs can be found at Feeling Good MN.