What Makes ACEs Different from Other Trauma?
Trauma is any experience that stuns us like a bolt out of the blue, overwhelming our coping mechanisms, and leaving us altered and disconnected from our bodies (Levine, P. & Kline, M.,Trauma Through a Child's Eyes). Traumatic experiences are inescapable: when they are occurring we have no control, and they generate terror, the deepest kind of fear. They can happen at any age – we usually think of war vets and PTSD when we hear trauma – or we think of terrible car accidents. But when you think about it – experiences that stun us and leave us feeling numb – at some point I dare say everyone has experienced trauma. Children are particularly impacted because of their rapidly developing brain – for instance, did you know that from ages 0-3, an infant’s brain is making one million connections every second? Every second. And it is based on experience, which is why love and nurturing are so important and why we need policies to support young families. The impact of childhood trauma was recognized waaaaay before the ACE study came along...think of Freud and many others.
ACEs are a way to quantify the amount of toxic stress a person experienced in childhood, looking at both traumatic experiences and toxic household stress. And they are valuable because rather than showing the impact of one type of trauma, they show the breadth of adversity - because, as I wrote in my first blog, they tend to be cumulative. If one is happening, it's likely more than one has been experienced. And because ACEs were shown to be associated with so many leading causes of death, research has been generated to begin to explain why; thanks to the advent of MRIs, PET scans as well as the field of epigenetics, answers are surfacing. ACEs literally get under the skin, impacting brain development, immune and hormone system functioning, and even genetic expression. How people survive and thrive through ACEs is being studied too, in the field of resilience. Harvard is doing a lot of work with resilience: check out this cool game.
The original categories of ACEs don't begin to capture all the bad things that can happen to kids. Research is expanding the categories, but that is for another blog post. In the meantime, may it be well with your soul.