We all have experienced different types of stress in our lives. Some stress is good for us because it helps to create resilience and prepares us for adulthood. An example of good stress would be sitting your driving test or completing a physical challenge, like long distance running. We all need good stress from time to time. There is another kind of stress that is much less desirable and we call this toxic stress. Toxic stress is chaotic, overwhelming and crushing to our mental wellbeing. It impairs our executive functioning, body regulation and behaviours. People who have experienced high levels of toxic stress in childhood often develop psychological problems in adulthood.
Doctors found that they could predict which adults were most at risk of developing poor mental health by using the ACEs Awareness Scale. The acronym ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experience. Some ACEs are obvious while others are more subtle or remain unconscious.
The Expanded ACEs Awareness Scale
Did you experience any of the following before your 18th birthday?
· Loss of a parent or guardian – either through death, imprisonment or abduction
· Loss of a close family member or friend – either through death, imprisonment or abduction
· Serious illness of a parent or family member
· Domestic violence – either actual or threatened
· Angry or hostile parents or guardians
· Parental emotional neglect
· Prenatal or postnatal stress following birth of sibling
· Highly critical or judgmental parents
· Child abuse by anyone – either physical, verbal, emotional or sexual – or witnessing a sibling being abused
· Community violence/feeling unsafe in your local area
· Discrimination due to race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion, etc
· Witnessing a horrific injury or death
· Being isolated from family or community
· Growing up homeless
· Being kidnapped or abducted
· Witnessing or experiencing terrorism
· Child trafficking
· Being displaced or immigration difficulties
· Cults – religious or otherwise
· Forced into an arranged marriage that you didn't want
· Environmental disasters - hurricane, forest fire, etc
An ACE score of 4 or more can put you at higher risk of developing mental health issues (two - five times higher), alcoholism (seven times higher) and suicide (twelve times higher). According to initial research, an ACE score of 6 or more is linked to a shorter life span (up to twenty years shorter).
So, why is it important to know about ACEs?
Because time and time again, we see how childhood trauma affects adulthood. We see happy and healthy children develop into emotionally dysregulated and intensely anxious adults. We cannot underestimate the importance of security and safety to every child that comes into the world. Some adverse events are out of human control, such as natural disasters or economic crisis. But a great deal of ACEs can be avoided and can save children from the heartbreak of poor mental health in their adult years.
If you identify with any of the ACEs outlined in this blog post, maybe it's time to consider the impacts they may have had on you. Maybe it's time to take stock of your history and life experience. Or maybe it's time to make a change for the future. It's never too late.