Positive / Protective Adverse Childhood Experiences (PACES)
So last week I spent a bit of time unpacking the research behind the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) that took place in the 1990’s and has shaped our understanding of trauma and its long-term effects. In more recent years this original work has been added to by a range of other insights including:
- Neuroscience – FMRI studies giving us an insight of the effect of what we call ‘toxic stress’ and how ACEs damage or alter the function and structure of children’s developing brains.
- Health consequences – how this toxic stress, caused by ACEs effect both short- and long-term health and can impact all parts of the body leading to autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, MS or lupus, as well as heart disease and cancer
- Intergenerational trauma – also understood as the epigenetic consequences or toxic stress which is an appreciation of how toxic stress caused by ACEs can alter our DNA functions and how that can be passed on from generation to generation.
Just as a quick recap, the ACE Study introduced some significant insights into our understanding of childhood trauma:
- ACEs are really common – almost two-thirds of adults have at least one
- ACEs cause adult onset of chronic disease such as cancer and heart disease as well as mental ill-health, violence or being a victim of violence
- ACEs don’t occur alone, it you have one, there’s an 87% chance you’ll have two or more
- The more ACEs you have, the greater your risk is of chronic disease, mental ill-health, violence and being a victim of violence. This part might be a bit challenging to read but people have an ACE score of 0-10 and each type of trauma counts as one, no matter how many times it occurs. People with an ACE score of 4 increases the risk of emphysema or chronic bronchitis by nearly 400% and attempted suicide by 1200%. People with an ACE score of 6 or higher are at risk of their lifespan being shortened by 20 years.
- ACEs are responsible for a significant proportion of workplace sick days, costs in healthcare, emergency response, mental health and criminal justice. Childhood adversity contributes to most of our major chronic health, mental health, economic health and social health issues.
- There are no differentiations between the ACEs – our brains don’t distinguish between the different types of toxic stress, the impact is all the same.
The good news is that if we have a high ACE score, we are not doomed to all the challenging health and lifestyle consequences highlighted in the ACE Study. Firstly, our brains are incredibly plastic (you might have heard the term ‘neuroplasticity’) and our bodies want to heal. Our brain and nervous system are continually changing in response to the environment around us. If the toxic stress stops and is replaced by practices that build resilience our brain, nervous system and body can slowly undo the stress-induced changes. This is why we are often encouraged to engage in mindfulness practice, exercise (especially outside in nature), eat well, get adequate sleep and develop healthy social interactions. It might seem quite superficial, but all these things help in their own small way to reduce or reverse the effects of toxic stress. It’s also a big reason why schools work with organisations and programs like The Resilience Project (https://theresilienceproject.com.au/) which help provide a trauma-informed space to heal outside of the family environment.
As an adult, particularly if we have children ourselves, one of the biggest gifts we can give to the future generations is to work through our own childhood trauma experiences. Not only do we heal ourselves (and give our brains, nervous systems, and bodies the space to heal) but also heal our children’s experiences by association. This is very different to my mind at least, from learning strategies to band-aid the effects of those traumas, or indeed only taking medication, which can play an important role in managing the symptoms of trauma but won’t heal the trauma itself. Working with a therapist who is not only trauma-informed but is trained in modalities (types of therapies) that have been shown to actually heal trauma is key, as is finding a person who you feel safe to do that work with.
If this blog has brought up some trauma impacts in your life that you’d like the space to explore, we have a team of therapists at Thea Baker Wellbeing and we have IMMEDIATE availability – please reach out to us at: email@example.com / 03 9077 8194.