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How adverse childhood experiences affect you

October 11, 2017

Did you know that stressful or traumatic experiences in your childhood such as abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, growing up with substance abuse, mental illness, or crime in the home, can cause toxic stress and lead to a variety of negative outcomes, including chronic disease and adult homelessness?

These are called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). As the number of ACEs you have been through increases, so does your risk of developing health problems like alcoholism, alcohol abuse, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, illicit drug use, and heart disease. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increases by 390%, hepatitis by 240%, depression by 460%, and suicide by 1,220%.

The ACE Study is an ongoing project in which researchers have followed the health of 17,000 people since the late 1990s. The study found a direct link between childhood trauma and the adult onset of chronic disease.

The researchers developed a questionnaire to determine an individual’s ACE score. The questionnaire contains ten yes-or-no questions regarding the individual’s first 18 years of life. Each “yes” answer counts as one adverse childhood experience. Research showed that those with ACE scores of four or more had significantly higher rates of heart disease and diabetes than those with ACE scores of zero.

At The Family Centre, the ACE Study has provided us with a re-frame, a new way of thinking. When looking at childhood experiences from the ACE Study’s perspective, the question shifts from "what’s wrong with you?" to "what’s happened to you?" We know and now the research validates that people are so resilient and often take responsibility for experiences they had no control of. “The goal is for all clients in our communities to take the survey,” says Bill Smiley, Director of Community Based Services. “It’s important for people to begin to see themselves in a different light.”

Learning about ACEs and taking the survey can be an incredibly eye-opening and transformative experience for people living with a high ACE score. Susanne, a participant of the Healthy Relationships therapeutic group for women, realized that she had experienced seven types of ACEs during her intake interview. “I didn’t know that I was living in a very abusive and volatile environment for 29 years,” says Susanne. “The intake interview was just enough to show me, ‘oh dear, I think I need some help.’ More than I thought I knew.”

 “When I found out about ACEs I was overwhelmed with joy,” says Cissy White in her article How facing ACEs makes us happier, healthier and more hopeful.“I felt radical relief. What I experienced was a profound sense of validation. This one study and its 10-question survey changed my life. It changed the way I see myself and feel about myself. It changed the way I parent, prioritize parenting and self-care. It altered the way I think about my past and my parents,” says Cissy.

 “I stopped looking at myself to try to figure out what’s wrong in me and with me,” says Cissy. “I saw that thousands of other people with ACE scores suffered the same way. This changed everything.”

 “I found something that helped me go from feeling like a failure as a human being on the most fundamental level, no matter how much I tried,” says Cissy, “to just a human being, who like every other human being, is impacted by ACEs.”

For more information about the ACE Study and how it affects health, visithttps://www.albertafamilywellness.org/what-we-know/aces.