slinky effect - ACES adverse childhood experiences

Could your life struggles today be the effects of a neurochemical slinky set in motion long ago?

Repeated adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s) can change the body, brain and nervous system and ultimately the whole life that follows. Better insight promotes self-acceptance and targeted strategies for healing.

For some of you, the absolute struggle of life may have begun a very long time ago.

Now, you may be an incredibly resilient person. No-one is more resilient than the person who is called on to use these skills, moment by moment, day by day, ad infinitum. The person with an easier life and more harmonious childhood may appear more resilient, but they have not been tested in the same ways.

You may be an incredibly resourceful person – likewise, life has probably helped you hone these skills.

You may be highly intelligent, empathic, kind or creative. You may feel very connected to your spiritual self. You may be navigating through life from you heart and your smarts and yet wonder … why is it not coming together for me?

Now, this article is not for everyone, but it will be for some of you. And some of your friends or loved ones.

I want to talk about the longer term life impacts of childhood complex trauma.

It’s a big word trauma. We hear it most often when talking about returned service people who develop PTSD after experiencing the horrors of war, after witnessing and participating in events that were chaotic and overwhelming to the nervous system, shattering to the psyche. These people return from war and can’t sleep, are triggered by flashbacks and memories, may be angry or hostile and have difficulty resuming loving relating with partners and family. Difficulty being in the present and working toward a meaningful life at all.

This scenario is outside is what we consider “normal life” and somehow easy for us to understand what it is and how it occurs.

When communities are distressed after a natural disaster wipes out their homes and towns, it is easy to see this as unusual and to understand the grief. Often the phenomenon of communities pulling together is a saving grace for survivors and important emotional resource as well.

Complex PTSD

Less well understood is Complex PTSD. This relates to abusive and traumatic situations that occur during childhood. They occur repeatedly, the child is unable to escape, and it occurs before their brain systems, cognitive abilities and sense of self are properly formed. In fact, it affects the way the organ of the brain and its communication systems develop, ensuring the individual orients around response to threat and danger as a default.

This is a critical survival strategy in the threatening environment. The amygdala responds quickly and decisively to smalls signs of threat, the distress response system is activated quickly and often consistently, the body coursing with adrenaline and cortisol to ensure the child can try to fight back or run away to be safe. Often neither of these options are available to the child and so with a body full of stress chemicals, the child shuts down, dissociates and goes into a freeze response.

Living in this way over a long period of time has a big impact on the body, as well as the psyche. The stress chemical overload impacts the functioning of the immune system, the digestive system, the inflammatory environment of the body and may contribute to a range of psychosomatic symptoms where what cannot be spoken shows up in the body. All kinds of illnesses that may be latent in our genetics as a potential experience in this lifetime, can be triggered into expression by this kind of chronic stress and trauma.

For most of us, the often unacknowledged sense that threat is ever present, continues throughout adult life, even once we are in apparently safe environments.

Our body holds the code for this.

What’s worse is that our stress response that was so adaptive in the abusive environment, is completely not adaptive for a flexible, connected and fulfilling adult life.

Who can function in a job or relationship where the smallest emotional sleight sends stress hormones soaring? Or where bullying behaviour of a colleague sees the whole system in shutdown, unable to interact with and respond to the immediate environment?

The sense of chronic isolation, judgement of emotional responses, impact on ability to live up to life potential can see many turn to coping mechanisms to dull the pain and slow down the stress response – drugs, alcohol, over spending, sex addiction, over working. Anything to dull and distract from the internal terror.

Others may find themselves drawn again and again to recreate in their adult life the scenario that generated the childhood trauma – ending up in all the wrong relationships, either because it is familiar, we think it is all we deserve or the child inside thinks “this time I can fix it and make it right”.

This is not the everyday stressors of a busy modern life we are talking about, it is the impact of trauma on a nervous system and a life.

The ACES study

From 1995 to 1997 a US study involving 17000 participants* measured the number of adverse childhood experiences in this population and tracked participants through life to explore the relationship between ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and health and life functioning.

ACES included such adverse experiences as sexual abuse, emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical abuse, physical neglect, substance abuse in home, mental illness in home, incarceration of family member, parental separation or divorce and witnessing violence against the mother.

ACES were found to increase the risk for:

  • Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Depression
  • Fetal death
  • Health-related quality of life
  • Illicit drug use
  • Ischemic heart disease (IHD)
  • Liver disease
  • Risk for intimate partner violence
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
  • Smoking
  • Suicide attempts
  • Unintended pregnancies
  • Early initiation of smoking
  • Early initiation of sexual activity
  • Adolescent pregnancy
  • Lung cancer

Below is a TED Talk from Dr Nadine Burke Harris who has brought the results of this study to life in very clear and simple way that demands action as a community.  My role is to support adults impacted by adverse childhood effects to discover the chain reaction from this and to put into place the right resources and style of therapy to bring into play now, what was most needed back then.

The table below shows how having four or more ACES increases the prevalence of these health and life problems in each population group.

Population prevalence no ACES Population prevalence 4 or more ACES
Problems with alcohol 1 in 20 1 in 4
STD 1 in 20 1 in 6
Smoking 1 in 14 1 in 6
Depression 1 in 18 1 in 2
Suicide neg 1 in 6
Serious financial problems 1 in 10 1 in 4
Serious job problems 1 in 20 1 in 6
Absenteeism (at least 2 days/mth) 1 in 17 1 in 7

If you would like to check you own ACES score, you can find the test here.

If you are struggling with multiple health problems, life survival, isolation, ongoing financial issues, mood management, sleep, despite all your best efforts it could be you are impacted by adverse childhood events more than your realise. It’s not about attitude, it’s in your neurochemistry and the activation of your DNA potentials. Often we blame ourselves or others do too, when we do not have a complete picture of what is driving the health, emotional and social problems.

If any of this rings bells for you, I can help you piece together your own story, including all of your strengths, resourcefulness and achievements. A clearer picture can help you put together a holistic program for support, healing and expression of your true self. The picture for complex trauma is unique and the right answers are not always the things you read about in pop psychology books and magazines.

My approach to working with trauma. 

*Source: Weiss JS, Wagner SH. What explains the negative consequences of adverse childhood experiences on adult health? Insights from cognitive and neuroscience research (editorial).  American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 1998;14:356-360.