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How ACEs Impact Your Mental Health

How ACEs Impact Your Mental Health

When you’re playing poker, a pair of aces is a strong hand. When you’re talking about how your childhood experiences have affected your mental health as an adult, the calculation changes. 

ACEs is an acronym for Adverse Childhood Experiences. This term is used to describe potentially traumatic events that occur in a person’s life before the age of 18. The ACEs study was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente in the mid-1990s. It looked at data from more than 17,000 participants to evaluate how exposure to traumatic events in childhood affected a person’s adult life. The study found a strong link between exposure to ACEs and an increased risk of mental health conditions, noting that the link persisted across all demographic groups. 

Types of ACEs

There are 10 different types of ACEs a child can experience. These include: 

  • Emotional neglect. One of the most common types of ACEs, emotional neglect involves the failure of caregivers to meet a child’s emotional needs via affection, support, love, encouragement, or validation.
  • Emotional abuse. Defined as any behavior, speech, or actions by caregivers or others that cause harm to a child’s emotional well-being, emotional abuse can include verbal abuse, constant criticism, rejection, or threats of violence.
  • Physical neglect. When caregivers fail to provide a child with the basic necessities of life, such as food, shelter, clothing, medical care, or supervision, the child can suffer both physical harm and emotional stress.
  • Physical abuse. This involves any non-accidental physical injury or harm inflicted on a child by a caregiver or other person in a position of power or authority.
  • Sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is defined as sexual activity or behavior with a child by an adult or older person, including but not limited to molestation, rape, or exploitation.
  • Household substance abuse. Alcohol or drug abuse or addiction within the household can lead to neglect, abuse, instability, and adverse childhood experiences for the child.
  • Household mental illness. The presence of mental health disorders among household members, including parents or caregivers, can negatively impact a child’s emotional well-being, stability, and safety.
  • Domestic violence. Domestic violence, including physical, verbal, emotional, or psychological abuse or aggression between adults in the household, can have profound effects on children who witness it.
  • Parental separation or divorce. The disruption or dissolution of the family unit through separation or divorce can lead to emotional distress, instability, and changes in family dynamics.
  • Incarcerated household member. Having a parent or other close family member who is imprisoned can result in family disruption, loss, stigma, and financial hardship.

Unfortunately, ACEs are common across all demographic groups. According to the study, 64% of the participants reported at least one ACE. More than one in six reported four or more ACEs. Subsequent research has confirmed these findings. 

Mental Health Effects of ACEs

The relationship between ACEs and mental health is profound. Exposure to adverse experiences during childhood can lead to the development of mental health disorders later in life.

ACEs also have cumulative effects. This means that people who have experienced multiple ACEs have a higher risk for negative outcomes compared to those who have experienced fewer or no ACEs. 

Some of the mental health concerns linked to ACEs include: 

  • Depression. ACEs can increase a person’s risk of developing clinical depression later in life.
  • Anxiety disorders. Exposure to ACEs can contribute to the development of various anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and panic disorder.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Individuals who have experienced ACEs, particularly those involving trauma or abuse, may develop symptoms of PTSD, such as flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance, and avoidance behaviors.
  • Substance use disorders. People who have experienced ACEs may be more likely to engage in substance abuse as a way to cope with emotional pain, trauma-related symptoms, or stress.
  • Self-harm and suicidal behavior. ACEs increase a person’s risk of self-harming behaviors, such as cutting or suicidal ideation and attempts.
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD). ACEs have been linked to an increased risk of developing BPD, a condition that is characterized by unstable emotions, impulsive behavior, identity disturbance, and difficulty in relationships.
  • Eating disorders. Exposure to ACEs can contribute to the development of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating disorder.

Getting Help

There’s no way to go back and change the past, but experiencing ACEs doesn’t mean you’re doomed to struggle with your mental health forever. With access to personalized treatment and support, you can learn effective ways to manage your condition and make the most of each day. 

At Raleigh Oaks Behavioral Health in Garner, North Carolina, we provide trauma-informed care that acknowledges the prevalence and impact of trauma, prioritizes safety and empowerment, and utilizes interventions that are sensitive to a trauma survivor’s unique needs. In addition to offering therapy and medication management services, we encourage our clients to explore how mindfulness practices, relaxation techniques, and stress-reduction strategies can be used to manage their symptoms, promote emotional regulation, and enhance their overall well-being.

Contact us today to learn more. 

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