At a recent professional conference, I was introduced to the astonishing results of a study by the Centers for Disease Control in conjunction with Kaiser Permanente about the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) on both the developing child and in subsequent adolescent and adult years.
The ACE study used a 10-question, yes-no format to identify the number and types of childhood abuse, neglect, and other adverse experiences that a large adult population of primary care patients reported.
The study then correlated the scores with learning and behavior problems in school and adult obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, smoking, drug abuse, and high-risk sexual behavior, as well as increased risk for heart, lung, and liver diseases, cancer, high blood pressure and cholesterol, anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts.
For example, surveyed patients who had at least four categories of adverse childhood experiences (13 percent of the sample of employed white, middle-class, college-educated people with great health insurance) had 32 times the prevalence of learning or behavior problems at school than those with no adverse childhood experiences.
These patients showed a 390 percent increase in the likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression, 460 percent; suicide, 1,220 percent. At least 18 states have replicated the ACE study and found similar results.
Maltreatment during the formative years of childhood can cause important regions of the brain to form and function abnormally, with long-term consequences on cognitive, language, socio-emotional development, and mental health. For example, the stress of chronic abuse may cause a hyperarousal response in the brain, which might result in hyperactivity and sleep disturbances.
Children with toxic stress live much of their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode; they respond to the world as a place of constant danger.
With brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately in non-threatening environments such as school, they can’t focus on learning.
As adolescents and adults, filled with despair, guilt, hopelessness, and frustration, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, inappropriate sex, high-risk behavior, and-or work and over-achievement, using these problematic coping strategies as solutions to escape from unwanted emotions.
Human brains and the lives they control have a degree of neuroplasticity; that is, they are able to change through repeated exposure to contradictory experiences.
Resilience factors borne out of ACE concepts – such as asking for help, developing trusting relationships, developing a positive attitude, and listening to one’s own feelings – can help people improve their lives.
A first step in asking for help, should you be one of the 13 percent of adults who grew up in a toxic environment, would be to seek mental health treatment from a qualified, licensed professional.
The benefits can be enormous to you, your children, to society as a whole, to our healthcare system and our economy.
Helene Stoller, Psy.D., is a non-practicing licensed psychologist and owner of Psychological & Counseling Associates of the Lowcountry, LLC in Bluffton.