What is the Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE) and how does it play out in our lives? Bear with me as I detail some technical, but important information.
ACE is one of the most crucial and important studies conducted to date, that illustrates how exposure to repeated doses of trauma, adverse experiences and toxic stress in childhood affects our health as adults. The research was led by Dr. Vincent Kaiser and Dr. Robert Anda. The study invited over 13, 000 adults to complete a standard medical evaluation and fill out seven categories of adverse childhood experiences. The categories included, physical, verbal, sexual abuse; neglect; drug and alcohol abuse; and witnessing their mother being abused, to name a few. The lowest score possible is 0 and the highest is 10.
According to the study, the higher our ACE score, the more health risks we are likely to have in adulthood. The major risks later in life include, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, alcohol abuse, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, maternal depression, death, diminished health-related quality of life, illicit drug use, heart disease, poor work performance, financial stress, risk for intimate partner violence, multiple sexual partners, sexually transmitted diseases, smoking, suicide attempts, unintended pregnancies, early initiation of smoking, early initiation of sexual activity, adolescent pregnancy, risk for sexual violence and poor academic achievement, and the list goes on.
It is a well known fact that early experiences of toxic and repeated stress can cause major chronic health issues. “Hundreds of studies have shown that childhood adversity hurts our mental and physical health, putting us at greater risk for learning disorders, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease, depression, obesity, suicide, substance abuse, failed relationships, violence, poor parenting, and early death,” writes Donna Jackson Nakazawa in Childhood Disrupted: How Your Biography Becomes Your Biology and How You Can Heal.
There is no doubt that early childhood stress leads to lifelong impairments in learning, behaviour, and both physical and mental health. It has expansive consequences. Stress completely changes our brain. Toxic stress in children can lead to permanent changes in brain structure and function! It leaves a massive wear and tear effect on our organs as well. The regulation of our stress hormones basically gets altered which causes dysregulation in the network (our nervous system, adrenal system, brain circuitry and our genome). The disruption in these networks causes physical and mental illnesses.
Early toxic stress can alter the size of brain structures such as amygdala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex; these structures are paramount for mediating anger, learning, memory, mood control and executive functioning. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a major study called ‘The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress’ in 2012. Their paper converges the multidisplinary science of neuroscience, molecular biology, genomics, developmental psychology, epidemiology, sociology and economics and has posited that early experiences and environmental influences can leave “lasting signature on the brain architecture and long term health.” The paper explained that “significant stress in early childhood can trigger amygdala hypertrophy and result in a hyper responsive or chronically activated physiologic stress response, along with increased potential for fear and anxiety. It is in this way that a child’s environment and early experiences get under the skin. Chronic stress diminishes its capacity to turn off elevated cortisol and it leads to impairments in memory and mood related functions.”
Now this may all seem a bit scary and we may think that all the damage is irreversible.
To begin a recovery process, we may want to welcome into awareness all the toxic stress we went through in our childhood and accept how it has affected us. Ask yourself what stresses were present in your childhood and how that stress may have affected you in your development (physically, emotionally, mentally).
Here is the great news – our brains can change! In the 50’s it was believed that our brains could not change. This was a misconception that is still believed by many even today. Another misconception is that we don’t use all of our brain. We do! Our brain has over 200 billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of connections. This is remarkable because we literally create a new pathway of neurons when we are learning something new and the more we practice that behaviour, the stronger that pathway of neurons become. Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks.
Our brain is an exquisitely adaptive plastic machine; it is a growing machine. The science of neuroplasticity explains that we can re-wire our brain for the good. We are not stuck with what has happened to us. Our brain is extremely resilient and so are we. Through extensive gentle introspection therapy, meditation and mindfulness we can overcome various mental unhealthy conditions. If you suffer from depression and anxiety, know that you can heal from it.
Dr. Lara Boyd, neuroscientist at UBC, concludes, through her research, that you can indeed change your brain. She explains that there are three ways our brain supports neuroplasticity: through chemical signals in neurons; through altering its structures; through altering its functions. The amalgam of all 3 works in concerted effort to help the brain change.
Seeking personal therapy helps us navigate and understand how our childhood has affected us in our lives and how we can change it for the better. Therapy is personalized because there is no one size fits all approach- what works for me may not work for you. Be aware that no two brains are same and everybody learns differently. So, even neuroplasticity is variable from person to person. The secret is the primary drive of our motivational behaviour. As Dr. Boyd says, “nothing is more important than practice and you have to do the work.”