What is your ACE score?

by Beth Coles, LPC-S

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is the term used to describe all types of abuse, neglect, and other potentially traumatic experiences that occur to a person under the age of 18. 

Dr. Robert Block, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics quoted, “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat in our nation today.”

The CDC Kaiser Permanente ACEs study is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect, household challenges, and later life health and well-being. The original study of 17,000 participants was conducted between 1995 and 1997 with two waves of data collection. The major findings of the study include that more than 2/3 of the study participants had at least one ACE and 1/8 of the population has four or more ACEs. Also shown was the direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, as well as depression, suicide, violent behavior, and being a victim of violence. Perhaps the most shocking of all, people with six or more ACEs can die twenty years earlier than those with zero. 

As the number of ACEs increase, so does the risk of these outcomes: 

·       Mental Health Concerns

·       Injury

·       Maternal Health Issues

·       Infectious Disease

·       Chronic Disease

·       Risky Behaviors

The impact of these ACEs is related to toxic stress, which is the repeated activation of the brain’s fight or flight (hyper-arousal) and freeze (hypo-arousal) stress response system. Chronic activation of this response system can cause multiple issues for a person’s physical and mental health. 

So what does this all look like in real life? The Window of Tolerance is a helpful tool to explain. Our brains all have a window in which we are in a calm state of mind, able to process and learn. When triggered into either hyper or hypo-arousal states, we are less likely to be insightful or regulated. When a person has experienced multiples ACEs, therefore chronic activation of the stress response system, their Window of Tolerance is typically much narrower than someone who has experienced none. This Window can be expanded with therapy and other mindfulness techniques focused on regulating state change in the brain.

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One of the most powerful things we have learned from the most recent brain research is about neuroplasticity- the brain’s ability to reorganize and form new neural networks throughout the lifespan. It is never too late to begin working on childhood trauma. There is incredible work being done in trauma-informed communities to address these issues in early brain development. Effective mental health interventions such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy are becoming more widely accessible and common. 

The findings from the ACE study don’t exactly leave us with cheerful feelings, but there is hope! Become trauma informed and look for ways to increase your knowledge on education and prevention.

Find Your ACE Score here:https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/about.html

Helpful Resources:

CDC and ACEs: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/index.html

TED Talk on ACEs: https://www.ted.com/talks/nadine_burke_harris_how_childhood_trauma_affects_health_across_a_lifetime?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare

EMDR International Association: https://www.emdria.org/page/what_is_emdr_therapy

National Child Traumatic Stress Network: https://www.nctsn.org/

Stephen Porges / Polyvagal Theory: https://www.stephenporges.com/

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