What are ACEs?
ACEs are Adverse Childhood Experiences that harm children’s developing brains and lead to changing how they respond to stress and damaging their immune systems so profoundly that the effects show up decades later. ACEs cause much of our burden of self-sabotaging patterns, chronic disease, most mental illness, and are at the root of most violence.
“ACEs” comes from the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, a groundbreaking public health study that discovered that childhood trauma leads to the adult onset of chronic diseases, depression and other mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence, as well as financial and social problems.
The 10 ACEs the researchers measured:
- Physical, sexual and verbal abuse.
- Physical and emotional neglect.
- A family member who is:
- depressed or diagnosed with other mental illness;
- addicted to alcohol or another substance;
- in prison.
- Witnessing a mother being abused.
- Losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason.
Subsequent to the ACE Study, other ACE surveys have expanded the types of ACEs to include racism, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing violence outside the home, witnessing a father being abused by a mother, being bullied by a peer or adult, involvement with the foster care system, living in a war zone, living in an unsafe neighborhood, losing a family member to deportation, etc.
ACEs science refers to the research on the prevalence and consequences of adverse childhood experiences, and what to do to prevent them. It comprises:
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study and subsequent surveys show that most people in the U.S. have at least one ACE, and that people with four ACEs— including living with an alcoholic parent, racism, bullying, witnessing violence outside the home, physical abuse, and losing a parent to divorce — have a huge risk of adult onset of chronic health problems such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide, and alcoholism.
Brain science (neurobiology of toxic stress) — how toxic stress caused by ACEs damages the function and structure of kids’ developing brains.
Health consequences — how toxic stress caused by ACEs affects short- and long-term health, and can impact every part of the body, leading to autoimmune diseases, such as arthritis, as well as heart disease, breast cancer, lung cancer, etc.
Historical and generational trauma (epigenetic consequences of toxic stress) — how toxic stress caused by ACEs can alter how our DNA functions, and how that can be passed on from generation to generation.
What are the health effects of toxic stress?
Chronic toxic stress—living in a red alert mode for months or years — can also damage our bodies. In a red alert state, the body pumps out adrenaline and cortisol continuously. Over time, the constant presence of adrenaline and cortisol keep blood pressure high, which weakens the heart and circulatory system. They also keep glucose levels high to provide enough energy for the heart and muscles to act quickly; this can lead to type 2 diabetes. Too much adrenaline and cortisol can also increase cholesterol.
Too much cortisol can lead to osteoporosis, arthritis, gastrointestinal disease, depression, anorexia nervosa, Cushing’s syndrome, hyperthyroidism and the shrinkage of lymph nodes, leading to the inability to ward off infections.
If the red alert system is always on, eventually the adrenal glands give out, and the body can’t produce enough cortisol to keep up with the demand. This may cause the immune system to attack parts of the body, which can lead to lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and fibromyalgia.
Cortisol is also extremely important in maintaining the body’s appropriate inflammation response. In a normal response to a bee sting or infection, the body rushes antibodies, white blood cells and other cell fighters to the site and the tissues swell while the battle rages. But too much swelling damages tissue. Cortisol controls this fine balance. So without the mediating effects of cortisol, the inflammatory response runs amok and can cause a host of diseases.
If you’re chronically stressed and then experience an additional traumatic event, your body will have trouble returning to a normal state. Over time, you will become more sensitive to trauma or stress, developing a hair-trigger response to events that other people shrug off.
Biomedical researchers say that childhood trauma is biologically embedded in our bodies: Children with adverse childhood experiences and adults who have experienced childhood trauma may respond more quickly and strongly to events or conversations that would not affect those with no ACEs, and have higher levels of indicators for inflammation than those who have not suffered childhood trauma. This wear and tear on the body is the main reason why the lifespan of people with an ACE score of six or higher is likely to be shortened by 20 years.
Can our brains change?
Fortunately, our brains can change for the better once they receive new information. The science of epigenetics reveals that how we perceive our environment changes how our cells, including brain cells, respond to our life.
The beliefs set in place during adverse childhood traumas continue to inform a person. A typical belief that “life is not safe and I can’t relax” is a non-stop input throughout their life, leading to toxic stress, fear, and higher cortisol levels. (This is your toxic stress-induced belief load.)
Once this belief is actually changed to “life is safe and I can relax”, cellular response immediately changes leading to increased normalization of all biological functions, including brain function. A person can then feel more happy and relaxed as a baseline response to life.
TAT has shown reduced levels of stress and improvements in health and happiness for over 25 years. Outcomes have been individually experienced and reported and well as being studied and reported in peer-reviewed journals. It is a leading modality in the field of epigenetics.