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How Many ACES Are You Holding?

Childhood trauma, How Many ACES Are You Holding?, adverse childhood experiences

If you’ve experienced significant adversity in your childhood, you’re certainly not alone. In fact, you’re among the millions of people carrying the invisible wounds of what researchers refer to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

ACEs are specific forms of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction that occur before the age of 18. Although it’s true that the fallout from these traumatic events increases your risk of experiencing mental health struggles, ACEs don’t need to hold power over you forever. With access to trauma-informed and evidence-based behavioral health treatment, you can counteract their effects and reclaim the life you deserve, free from the burdens of your past.

What Are ACES?

The original CDC-Kaiser Permanente study into the effects of childhood trauma on adult well-being identified 10 different categories of ACES.

  1. Physical abuse. Intentional physical harm or injury inflicted on a child by a parent or caregiver.
  2. Emotional abuse. Behaviors that harm a child’s self-worth or emotional well-being, such as name-calling, shaming, or threatening.
  3. Sexual abuse. Any sexual act between an adult and child or coercing a child into sexual activities.  
  4. Physical neglect. Failing to provide a child’s basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, or supervision.
  5. Emotional neglect. Inattention to a child’s emotional needs, not providing affection or love.
  6. Mental illness in the household. Living with a parent or household member with a mental illness like depression or PTSD.
  7. Domestic violence in the household. Witnessing or being impacted by violence or abuse between intimate partners in the home.
  8. Substance abuse in the household. Living with a parent or other adult abusing alcohol, drugs, or other substances.  
  9. Incarceration of a household member. A family member serving time in prison or jail during childhood.
  10. Parental separation or divorce. Parents divorcing or one parent being absent from the household for extended periods.

The Effects of ACEs on Mental Health

Why are ACEs so detrimental to long-term mental wellness? The effects of ACES are multilayered, but it comes down to how stress and trauma impact a child’s developing brain and nervous system.  

Children who experience ACEs are constantly in a heightened state of psychological and physiological stress activation. Their bodies are routinely flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline as they feel under threat and unsafe in their own homes.

This toxic stress disrupts healthy brain development and alters stress response systems in lasting ways. It weakens the brain’s ability to regulate emotions, read social cues, and practice self-control. ACEs also increase reactivity and impulsivity while decreasing focus, memory, and reasoning abilities.

Such neurological and biological changes lay the groundwork for mental health struggles down the road. Those who’ve experienced ACEs are primed for hypervigilance, anxiety, depression, aggression, and other psychological and behavioral issues resulting from an overactive fight-or-flight response.

Additionally, ACEs can affect qualities like self-esteem, confidence, sense of self-worth, and the ability to form secure attachments and trusting relationships. If your childhood environment was chaotic and unpredictable, it’s not difficult to see how this might shape your perception of the world as an adult in negative ways. 

Moving Forward 

While the impacts of ACEs are far-reaching, they are not a life sentence. Your brain maintains a remarkable ability to adapt and reorganize itself, which is known as neuroplasticity. With the right support, it’s possible for you to overcome the mental health fallout from ACEs and cultivate the psychological resources you need to thrive. 

  1. Seeking Trauma-Informed Care

Trauma-informed care focuses on understanding how ACEs influence thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and overall well-being. Practitioners study the impacts of trauma on brain functioning and coping mechanisms like substance abuse or self-harm. With this lens, they can better recognize trauma reactions, adapt their approaches, and avoid practices that may trigger or re-traumatize clients. Trauma-informed care provides a safe, supportive environment characterized by transparency, collaboration, and empowerment so you can rebuild self-esteem, self-efficacy, and a sense of having control over your life again.

  1. Developing Emotional Intelligence and Self-Regulation

Due to the impacts of ACEs on brain development, you may struggle with emotional awareness, emotional regulation, and distress tolerance skills. Mindfulness practices like meditation, deep breathing, and grounding techniques can increase your present-moment awareness and disrupt the tendency to stay stuck in negative thought patterns. Cognitive strategies help you to reframe unhelpful core beliefs stemming from childhood abuse and dysfunction.

  1. Building a Support System

ACEs frequently disrupt your ability to form secure attachments. Joining group therapy with others who have gone through similar experiences provides a sense of not being alone, facilitates the giving and receiving of support, and reinforces the reality that ACEs do not define or limit a person’s worth.

  1. Adopting an Asset-Based Approach to Continued Growth

Rather than operating from a deficit-based model focused solely on the risk factors and problems you’ve experienced in the past, an asset-based approach seeks to help you amplify your innate psychological strengths. With access to the right tools and outlets, you can turn the same traits that enabled your survival during times of childhood adversity into sources of agency, purpose, and empowerment that help you continue to reach your mental health goals

You Deserve Freedom From the Invisible Wounds of Your Past

The impacts of ACEs don’t need to define your narrative as a survivor. If you’re ready to start your journey toward mental wellness, the team at Eagle View Behavioral Health in Bettendorf, Iowa, is here to help. Contact us today for a free, confidential evaluation. 


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