But I wouldn’t call it trauma…
You’ve undoubtedly heard the term “trauma” in the context of mental health discussions. Trauma is commonly thought of as a deeply disturbing event or series of events that negatively affects your functioning.
- A serious car accident that leaves you shaken and fearful of driving.
- An assault that destroys your trust in others and causes you to be hypervigilant of your surroundings.
- A veteran who continues to experience flashbacks and nightmares after witnessing the horrors of war.
TRAUMA? NO, NOT ME.
But have you ever considered the impact of “adverse childhood experiences”? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) as “stressful or traumatic events, including abuse and neglect. They may also include household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence or growing up with family members who have substance use disorders. ACEs are strongly related to the development and prevalence of a wide range of health problems throughout a person’s lifespan.”
While ACEs can certainly include severe traumas such as sexual or physical abuse or childhood neglect, it also captures “little t” traumas – chronic, ongoing stressful experiences which affect your sense of safety in the world.
Examples include parental separation/divorce, witnessing intimate partner violence, witnessing violence against a maternal figure, having incarcerated family members, or living with family members with mental illness or substance misuse. These experiences can powerfully shape the way you approach your life now, whether or not you are consciously aware of it. It can influence your relationships, spirituality, work/school, marriage, parenting, self-esteem, mental and physical health, and even your outlook of the future.
WHAT DOES RESEARCH TELL US?
Importantly, research shows that ACEs are fairly common. In 1993, Kaiser Permanente surveyed over 17,000 participants and found that almost two-thirds of study participants endorsed at least one type of ACE. One in five participants reported 3 or more. More than 28% of participants experienced physical abuse, nearly 27% of participants reported growing up with substance abuse in the home, and 20% of participants endorsed sexual abuse prior to age 18. Those who experienced one type of Adverse Childhood Experiences were more susceptible to other forms of ACE, even later in life. The study also found that as the number of ACEs increased, so did the number of severe health conditions (heart disease, cancer, lung disease, obesity), self-destructive behaviors (substance use, promiscuity, suicidal behavior), and overall lower quality of life (poor work performance, poor academic achievement, financial stress) (Felitti et al., 1993).
WHAT IF I’VE EXPERIENCED ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES?
This is not to say that everyone with a difficult childhood is doomed to health problems or a low quality of life. Many people are resilient and resourceful – able to obtain an education, secure meaningful work, and hold steady relationships. Adversity can be positive, character-building experiences. After all, many of us know that life is inherently filled with challenges, but it’s not all bad.
Yet periods of trials and tribulations often reveal areas of weakness that may have first been created by ACEs. Perhaps a season of stability covered up the vulnerability. Take for example:
- A young woman who witnessed her father physically abuse and humiliate her mother, now struggling to meet “the right guy” in the dating scene.
- A man whose mother suffered from schizophrenia suddenly experiencing severe panic attacks when his wife shows signs of postpartum depression.
- A mother whose brother died of a heroin overdose worrying about her children dabbling drugs, yet she fears she will become an overbearing parent.
Without a doubt, our past life experiences extend into our present and our future.
Working through the impact of ACEs gives an opportunity to understand how they are influencing your life, so that you can truly “see” what these experiences are doing and how they are affecting your self experience. Therapy can help empower you to make deliberate and intentional choices to effectively decrease the negative impact of these experiences so that you can redirect them, and take greater control of your present for the sake of your future.
And importantly, as you understand how your past is affecting your present, it can positively impact the future of those within your sphere of influence – be it your friends, your spouse, your children, or your children’s children. What if you could reduce or even prevent others from suffering through similar experiences? Working through your own experiences can make a difference not just for you, but for those around you as well.
For more resources on Adverse Childhood Experiences explore the links below:
Dr. Amy King, Psy.D., specializes in many things including trauma. Her internship and postdoctoral fellowship work at Hartford Hospital/Institute of Living in Hartford, CT allowed her to work with a variety of clients, offering psychological testing, group therapy, and individual psychotherapy. She is passionate about helping her clients not only treat their symptoms, but find the root cause, utilizing psychological testing and therapy.