Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences and Their Impact on Addiction

two little girls dressed for cold weather, holding hands and looking sad - adverse childhood experiences

We know that over the course of human history, children have suffered through tremendous events. But it’s only been in the last few decades that scientists have tried to understand how adverse childhood experiences affect adult behaviors and what can be done to improve health.

What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences?

From 1995 to 1997, an extensive longitudinal study was developed by physicians and research leaders Robert F. Anda and Vincent J. Felliti at Kaiser Permanente to provide qualitative information on the impact of childhood and adolescent trauma. The goal was to determine just how adverse childhood experiences—referred to now as ACEs—affect brain development, mental and emotional coping abilities, relationship bonding, how the body responds to stress, long-term health factors, and other essential aspects of life.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that primary ACEs study has three categories:

  • Abuse: which includes emotional, mental, physical, and sexual abuse of either the child or the parent
  • Household challenges: such as a household member with mental illness, alcoholism, or substance abuse; separation from parent by divorce, death, or involvement in the criminal justice system; or/and mother treated violently
  • Neglect: which includes emotional or physical neglect

All questions correlate to a respondent’s experiences from birth to age 18. Here’s a sample questionnaire relating to the 10 primary ACEs, and more extensive versions now used by the CDC for men and women. Participants tally their number of experiences to determine their final ACEs score.

More than 17,000 people participated in two different waves of the study. The CDC reports some astounding results, which we include verbatim:

  • “Almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs.”
  • “Some populations are more vulnerable to experiencing ACEs because of the social and economic conditions in which they live, learn, work, and play.”
  • “Study findings show a graded dose-response relationship between ACEs and negative health and well-being outcomes. In other words, as the number of ACEs increases so does the risk for negative outcomes.”

The Compounded Negative Impact of ACEs

Suffering from ACEs without proper therapeutic treatment puts many adults at a strong disadvantage. The negative outcomes include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Mental and emotional health disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and a higher risk for suicide
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • More circumstances involving unsafe sex, unplanned pregnancies, and a greater likelihood of HIV and STDs
  • A greater risk of complicated health issues such as diabetes, heart and lung disease, obesity, stroke, cancer, and early death
  • Compromised life opportunities for education, occupation, and income

Trauma Outlined

The Trauma-Informed Care Implementation Resource Center reports that in comparisons between people without ACEs and those with four or more, adults with ACEs were:

  • “12 times as likely to attempt suicide.”
  • “10 times as likely to have injected street drugs.”
  • “7 times more likely to consider themselves alcoholics.”

Adolescents and adults with unresolved pain and stress from trauma use “maladaptive behaviors” as coping mechanisms, regardless of the additional harm they might cause. Trauma also causes major emotional dysregulation, which is often defined as an individual’s inability to properly regulate emotional reactions.

While many mental health professionals still use the three primary categories outlining the top 10 ACEs, others have started exploring effects of multiple types of trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) suggests others might include:

  • Being in foster care
  • Bullying
  • Community violence
  • Complex trauma and traumatic grief
  • Early childhood trauma
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Medical trauma
  • Natural and manmade disasters
  • Racism
  • Refugee trauma
  • Sex trafficking
  • Terrorism and violence

Because of groundbreaking ACEs research, there’s a greater acceptance in the medical community regarding the prevalence of its impact, and the importance of acknowledging a person’s entire life, not just symptoms of a disease, to prompt healing. Campaigns for early prevention and intervention help, as does a more whole person approach to ensure better health clarity.

Find the Help You Need at Willingway

There’s a popular saying that begins with “Trauma is not your fault, but …” and usually ends with something like “healing is your responsibility.” This is both true and false.

Some mental experts believe it’s important to communicate the full intent of that statement as “trauma is not your fault.” The period at the end of that sentence is an acknowledgement of what happened, without dismissing the effects of it or placing all the responsibility of healing on the individual.

Clinical social worker Brian Peck writes that a more vital message for someone to hear is more like, “Trauma is not your fault. And healing is possible.” Or “And you have the capacity to heal within safe and supportive relationships.” Or even: “And I’m committed to being here with you as a resource for your nervous system.” It’s that partnership between a dedicated team of professionals and you or a loved one that makes all the difference.

Get Assessed at Willingway

After a detailed assessment at Willingway’s inpatient rehabilitation facility, a partnership approach to healing might include:

  • Individual, gender-based, family, and group counseling
  • An introduction to 12-Step recovery, spirituality, and self-care practices
  • Extended treatment and adolescent treatment services
  • Access to continuing care community groups throughout the Southeast

Once you realize you don’t need to face the effects of trauma alone, it’s much easier to move forward in your life more progressively. Call today to find out how our board-certified team can help.

Are you or a loved one looking for a Georgia alcohol rehab facility? To find out more about services offered by Willingway contact us 24 hours a day at 888-979-2140, and let us help you get started on the road to recovery.Willingway - Addiction Treatment Experts

Additional Resources:

Contact Us