November 19, 2020

How Adverse Childhood Experiences Make us Crave Toxic Habits (& What we Can do About It).


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ACE is an acronym that stands for: Adverse Childhood Experiences.

ACEs comes from a survey that was included as part of the intake form of Kaiser Permanente back in 1995 for a couple of years. The project was sponsored by the CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and started in an obesity clinic.

Seventeen thousand responses were accumulated and analyzed, and what they found was quite disturbing. It revealed that these adverse childhood experiences led to health difficulties much later in life, oftentimes decades later, such as obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, addictions, violence, being a victim of violence, depression, suicide, and many other issues, such as autoimmune syndromes.

I’d like to note that the survey was taken by mainly white, middle-class, college-educated people with good jobs and great health care, as this was through Kaiser Permanente Health.

The questionnaire included 10 questions based upon a survey taken from about 300 Kaiser members to identify the most common challenges they had experienced.

This 10-question survey includes five questions that are of a personal nature; in other words, challenges for that person and five questions related to things that may have happened to family members.

The accumulated information was disconcerting, and people didn’t want to believe that this was true, so there was some pushback.

Other studies have verified the findings since then, and I’m happy to say that it is now readily-accepted information. At the same time, it is not widely known.

ACEs are All Too Common

Out of the 17,000 people surveyed in the original ACE study, 70 percent had experienced at least one. And of that group, 87 percent of them had experienced more than one. And there’s a direct correlation between the number of ACEs that you have and your health outcome.

So, the more ACEs you have, the greater possibility for ill health and early death. It’s also important to know that challenges from when we were young can (and do) affect our physical, emotional, and mental health. We know that, for example, autism is on the rise, and ADHD is on the rise, as is anxiety, especially amongst younger and younger children, and more so girls than boys.

And, increased reporting doesn’t explain away the numbers, and neither does poor choices and behaviors. In fact, the reverse is true. ACEs can lead to making poor choices and unhealthy behaviors.

We are entering a phase where, collectively, we’ve got to do something about this, or it’s just going to keep getting worse.

Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris is My Heroine

One of the great proponents of disseminating the information about ACEs is the Surgeon General of the state of California, Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris. Her TED Talk is inspiring, and her backstory is pretty special.

After her residency, she chose to open a clinic in one of the poorest and highest-crime areas of San Francisco. And, at this clinic, while she was serving the population, she noticed that a lot of the patients were experiencing similar physical, emotional, and mental issues.

She learned about the ACEs study and brought this information into her work at the clinic, and what she shared profoundly affected the outcomes of her patients’ lives.

More recently, as the Surgeon General of the state of California, Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris implemented the ACEs Aware Initiative to educate the healthcare industry about screening for ACEs with their patients.

The program also provides a few resources for individuals who have experienced them—things like biofeedback and mindfulness practices, which I include in my own practice when working with individuals who are not finding traditional medicine helpful.

Confusing Pain and Pleasure

Another aspect of the toxic stress from ACEs is that it can confuse signals of safety. We can end up confusing pain and pleasure because of adverse experiences as children.

Each time we experience a body sensation and its associated emotion because of an adverse childhood event, chemicals are created in our body and brain. After a strong or repeated release of these chemicals, our cell membranes make more receptors for them, and each time a cell divides, there are now twice as many places for that chemical. Our body responds by putting us into similar situations in order to provide the chemicals our cells, in essence, crave.

Toxic stress links drama and pain to our basic human needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection, and we instead seek danger. And, on the other end of the spectrum, we link feeling okay with a fear that something bad is going to happen next.

Change the Outcome and Change the World

Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to change in response to learning, experience, or injury. Learning and experience create positive neuroplasticity, while injury causes negative neuroplasticity. And, we could call the neuron-destroying action of our microglial cells a type of injury. We can use positive neuroplasticity to evolve our brain and to evolve ourselves. 

Moving our bodies with mindfulness in gentle and easy ways will change our brains rather quickly because we are learning and experiencing simultaneously. It takes only moments for a new pathway to be created, and we can double the number of our neuronal connections, our brain pathways, in an hour.

And, if we practice these motions daily, we can quickly, within days, make permanent positive change.

PEACE = Personal Evolution from Adverse Childhood Experiences.

We can reduce toxic stress for ourselves and become healthy. And because we are wired to mirror each other, others will also feel well if we can feel well.

Together we can break this chain of violence, addiction, and dysfunction.

And, who knows? World peace?

I believe it’s possible.

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