The impact of trauma

Childhood experiences are powerful determinants of who we become as adults

The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study was led by Co-researchers Dr. Vincent Felitti and Dr. Rob Anda and helped redefine how we look at public health in our country. The ACE study has been said to be the most important public health study of our time and the overall findings were that:

  1. Early childhood toxic stress is entirely too common
  2. Early childhood toxic stress is in fact the basis for many common public health and social problems
  3. childhood adversities are a strong predictor of later social malfunction, mental illness, health risks, disease and premature death.

In short, childhood experiences are powerful determinants of who we become as adults.

Specifically, the presence of chronic stress-or stress experienced at a young age over and over again at the hands of those who are supposed to know, love and care for children-can have a negative impact on a person’s well-being. 

Adverse Childhood Experiences is the term given to the study to explain chronic or toxic stress. Toxic stress occurs when a child experiences prolonged, severe and frequent stress without support from an adult. In the ACE study researchers identified a few specific adversities related to toxic stress. They are events such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect and family dysfunction -including incarceration, mental illness or substance abuse of a household member, domestic violence, parental separation or divorce.

The Adverse Childhood Experience Study was able to help us understand how chronic and toxic stress results in actual changes in a child’s brain development-changes that affect a child’s cognitive, social and mental health. In fact, the Center for Disease Control call the ACE study “one of, if not the leading determinant of the health and social well-being of our nation.” 

Scientific research shows that chronic stress can cause significant changes to the way a child’s brain develops. These changes impact the way a child is able to learn, play and grow. Chronic stress can negatively impact a child’s mental and physical health. These brain changes can cause a child to be unable to regulate their emotions and to calm or feel safe in an otherwise safe environment. These changes can also impact the way a child develops relationships with others in their life and can cause them to have difficulty learning. 

These impacts can lead to adoption of health risk behaviors such as smoking, overeating, drug use, alcoholism, promiscuity and other addictions. These behaviors and the inflammation caused from early chronic stress can cause later health problems including: diabetes, cancer, heart, lung and kidney disease, asthma, arthritis and a seemingly endless list of other health problems. 

The ACE study has allowed us to understand better than ever the importance of a stable and safe childhood. It also helps us to understand how we can help people heal from traumatic experiences. 

Recent brain research also paints a picture of hope. We know that Adverse Childhood Experiences are not a destiny and as one quote so eloquently reminds us “if the brain can be hurt, it can be healed.” 

Additionally, as Dr. Anda reminds us over and over again “if we can predict it, we can prevent it.” We can prevent it by creating communities in which everyone can thrive, building resiliency in families and helping people to understand the impact of trauma and heal from their experiences. Dr. Felitti has said before that “our current social problems are so complex we MUST invest in primary prevention programs.”

 Child Abuse Council has worked since 1977 to prevent the childhood adversities in our community and will continue to provide quality programs to prevent childhood adversity, support families and provide services necessary to help children and families heal. 

In addition to leading prevention efforts we can use what we learned from the ACE study to become Trauma Informed. Trauma Informed Care means to:

  • realize the high prevalence of trauma in our society
  • recognize the impact of trauma on individuals
  • respond by putting what we know into practice 

In 2013 Child Abuse Council, in partnership with Family Resources and funded by United Way of the Quad Cities, developed the Eastern Iowa-Western Illinois Trauma Informed Care Consortium . This consortium is a community initiative designed to implement a long term strategic change in the Quad Cities. This plan will coordinate community efforts based on research of the ACE study.