Why Do Adverse Childhood Experiences Harm Us As Adults?

adverse childhood experiences

A lot of people do not realize that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) harm us as adults. Understanding the mechanisms can help break the ACEs/health link.

KEY POINTS:

Dysregulated stress resulting from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) can continue to cause suffering in adulthood.
Bringing stress to tolerable limits is a critical first step to healing and breaking the link between ACEs and harmful health outcomes.
Reducing the suffering of adults affected by childhood adversity starts with regulating dysregulated pressure.

Since 1998, research has consistently demonstrated that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) predict adult health problems ranging from headaches and obesity to depression, anxiety, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, cancer, and sleep disorders. But how do events that occurred way back in childhood continue to affect our health so many years later? Understanding the mechanisms will later point us to ways to break the ACEs/adult health link.

As the diagram shows, dysregulated stress is central to the ACEs/health outcomes relationship. Toxic stress in childhood can imprint and change the brain, biology, and sense of self in ways that affect adult well-being throughout life if not addressed.

Why Do Adverse Childhood Experiences Harm Us As Adults?
Source: Schiraldi, G. R. (2021). The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger. ©2021 Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D.

This is why the originator of Adverse Childhood Experiences research, Dr. Vincent Felitti, stated that we err to treat the smoke (stress-related conditions) without treating the flame (the underlying wounds from childhood that cause and maintain dysregulated stress). Dysregulated stress disrupts all systems of the body, including these.

Related: The 5 Child Roles In Dysfunctional Families

Adverse Childhood Experiences Affect Neurological Systems

Overwhelming stress in childhood, particularly during the brain’s tremendous growth spurt in the first three years of life, influences brain development in ways that keep the brain on high alert. During this growth spurt, traumatic experiences register not in the not-yet-developed (verbal/thinking) left brain, which will later recall memories consciously with words and reason, but in the relatively well-developed right brain.

With its strong connections to the emotional and survival regions of the brain, the right brain oversees the non-verbal, non-conscious processing of memories. It imprints childhood memories, which are experienced as images, sensations, visceral states (e.g., sick to the stomach; constriction of the throat; survival tendencies, such as tensing muscles and preparing to run away) and a strong feeling tone (a felt sense of nameless dread; a sense of inadequacy, depression, shame, anxiety, and so forth).

Related: How Does Shame From Toxic Childhood Stress Still Harm Us?

Even after the left brain fully develops, the right brain will remain dominant for the emotional processing of traumatic memories because the left brain goes off-line during overwhelming stress. It’s as though the brain says, “This is an emergency. There is no time to speak or reason with the threat. Right brain, take over.” If unaddressed, the patterns of danger and high alert imprinted in the right brain tend to persist, beneath the level of conscious awareness, over the lifetime.

childhood affects adulthood
Why Do Adverse Childhood Experiences Harm Us As Adults?

Dysregulated Stress Hormones

Overwhelming stress can cause over-or under-secretion of stress hormones. (Under-secretion can result from chronic anxiety that exhausts the supply of stress hormones.) Cortisol is a major stress hormone that helps the body mobilize for fight or flight, and it is usually helpful in the short term. For example, cortisol converts protein to sugar to provide fuel for the stress response. Dysregulated cortisol, however, is linked to:

  • Obesity
  • Elevated blood sugar and diabetes
  • Inflammation—a common culprit in a wide array of disorders
  • Immune dysfunction–Too much cortisol suppresses immunity, leaving us vulnerable to colds, flu, and other infections. Too little cortisol allows the immune system to become over-reactive, putting us at risk for autoimmune disorders. Toxic stress in the early years can impair the immune system’s ability to distinguish friend from foe.
  • Impaired brain and lung development resulting from the conversion of protein to sugar
  • Disrupted sleep and mood
  • Harmful changes in epigenomes and telomeres. The epigenome sits alongside DNA strands and determines gene expression, and therefore how the brain develops. Cortisol also shortens telomeres, the protective “cap” of the chromosome, disrupting proper brain development.
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Glenn Schiraldi

Glenn R. Schiraldi, PhD, has served on the stress management faculties at The Pentagon, the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, and the University of Maryland, where he received the Outstanding Teacher Award in addition to other teaching/service awards. His fourteen books on stress-related topics have been translated into seventeen languages, and include The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook, The Self-Esteem Workbook. The Resilience Workbook, and The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook. The founder of Resilience Training International, he has trained laypersons, emergency responders, and clinicians around the world on the diverse aspects of stress, trauma, and resilience.View Author posts

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