Adverse childhood experiences is another term for childhood trauma. These may be a weight you carry without even knowing it. When you think of your early years, what comes to mind? gDo you have happy memories of a happy and functional family? Or, are you plagued by darker memories of family addiction or a narcissist family dynamic.

Complex trauma explains adverse experiences

From Dr. Jade Wu: Most of us can recognize what trauma looks like. When we think of trauma, we often think of momentous, life-changing events. We think of horrific instances of sexual assault, car accidents, natural disaster, and war—events that divide a person’s life into “before” and “after.” These are the experiences that victims are often plagued with in the form of flashbacks and nightmares.

What we don’t think or talk much about is something called complex trauma. Complex trauma is a subtle, “slow burn” type of childhood experience that affects a person just as profoundly.

Complex trauma is difficult to pinpoint, describe, and recall. They might appear as “snapshots” from childhood, like waiting at the window late into the night for an often-absent parent to come home. They could appear as a general feeling of distrust or detachment, a feeling that sneaks into the person’s adult relationships, even when those relationships are with people who aren’t harmful.

This kind of trauma is not always about what happened to a person; it can be about what you didn’t get, like reliability or nurture or honesty.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) checklist

This checklist is given to patients to identify trauma and includes ten revealing questions that includes the following:

Did a parent or older adult in the household often swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you?

Did you often feel that your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?

Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?

Four or more of these questions include profound neglect and victimization for a child, someone who is trying to develop a sense of self in a world where the people they’re most dependent on are the ones harming them the most. Would you have guessed that one in eight people recalled experiences like these their childhoods?

Let’s acknowledge that the effects of trauma can be hard to recognize. Here are three that we often don’t discuss.

Adverse childhood experiences can burrow down deep into the body, contributing to chronic illness

Complex childhood trauma can cause physical scars in addition to psychological. Since the first ACEs study came out, showing how common negative childhood events are, health scientists from many fields have studied how these events affect long-term health. There is increasing evidence of a link between ACEs and diseases like heart, liver, lung, and autoimmune disease, and chronic headaches.

Trauma can be harmful to a person’s relationship with their own sexuality

Growing up in a safe, caring  environment allows a child to learn about their own bodies and sexuality in a healthy, confident way. But not having knowledge of or positive role models for sex and relationships can lead to poor outcomes for young people.

A study of almost 10,000 adults found that the more ACEs they had, the more likely they were to have had a sexually transmitted disease. Only seven percent of men with no ACEs have ever had an STD, but 39 percent of men with seven ACEs have had an STD. The difference is similarly mind-boggling for women. Women with ACEs have been found to engage in more sexually risky behaviors, such as being up to 2.6 times as likely of having sex where they thought they were exposed to HIV.

Complex trauma can affect your sense of time and ability to plan the future

How do you remember the past? Plan for the future? We all have our baggage and our fears but those who have experienced complex trauma literally have holes in the past and future. A large study of over 5000 men and women found that those with significant complex trauma (ACEs score of 5 or higher) were six times as likely as those without any ACEs to have large gaps in their childhood memories.

When looking towards the future, young people with ACEs see something fuzzy too. Lack of future-oriented thinking is a feature of depression, and researchers have found that this can drive teens with ACEs to engage in delinquent, dangerous behaviors.

Even the present can feel distant to those with complex trauma. The experience of dissociation is sometimes referred to as an “out-of-body experience,” where a person feels as if they have come away from their body. Dissociation can also manifest as insensitivity to pain, loss of muscle control, or even the inability to swallow. Those who have had a significant number of ACEs are more likely to experience dissociation.

Understanding adverse childhood experiences leads to healing

If you score high on the ACE test, you may feel hopeless. What can you do to undo the effects of trauma?  How can we all remedy missed childhoods and uncertain futures? Being aware is the first step.

Understanding the link between ACEs and these long-term symptoms is important. It can help healthcare providers pay more attention to complex trauma in young people, and offer interventions to avoid unhealthy coping behaviors like excessive drinking. It also means that those suffering can form a better sense of why it’s happening to them, so that they (and those around them) can view their symptoms with more empathy and compassion.

If you are struggling with childhood trauma talk about it

There’s a very valid reason for your feelings and emotional issues. Reach out to your social support system. Al-anon is a great resource for those who have addiction in the family. Of course, not everyone with a high ACEs score will have a difficult adulthood, just as not everyone with low or no ACEs will have an easy one. Remember, ACEs is a tool to assess risk. If you think you’re experiencing the effects of childhood trauma, you should seek guidance from a mental health professional.


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