Trauma shapes us. It alters brain development which shapes not only the way we think but how we interact with others, what we believe about God, what kind of intimacy we like or dislike, how we raise our children, and even our physical health.
Exactly how trauma shapes these aspects of our lives varies widely based on a multiplicity of variables. In fact, the term trauma itself is very broad, encompassing such things as complex trauma, developmental trauma, PTSD, and more.
In the next few articles I am going to provide a very narrow window into how negative childhood experiences can impact adults. Today we will introduce one of the most significant studies ever done on the subject: the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. In future articles I will describe some of the common impacts I have observed over the course of my career as a minister and DV interventionist/advocate, and I will touch on some of the factors that influence resiliency and healing.
In 1985 a physician with the Kaiser Permanente Department of Preventive Medicine named Dr. Vincent Felitti was frustrated with the dropout rates of patients in his San Diego Obesity Clinic. In a talk he gave in 2015 Dr. Felitti said there was one case in particular that started everything.
“A young woman came in,” he recalled. “She was 408 lbs. and she asked us if we could help her with her problem. Our first mistake was in accepting her diagnosis of what the problem was.”
In 51 weeks the staff at the obesity clinic helped this woman go from 408 lbs. to just 132 lbs. Before he could proclaim astounding success however, something happened that he thought was “physiologically impossible.” She regained 37 lbs. in three weeks. When he asked her what was happening she said that she had been sleep eating. She would go to bed with a clean kitchen and wake up the next morning to find food out and dirty dishes in the sink.
Dr. Felitti was willing to accept what had happened. What he was confused about was why and why now. She told him that the sleep eating had started the day that she had been propositioned by a co-worker. Dr. Felitti continued to ask questions and discovered that the young woman had been molested as a child by her grandfather. It would be well worth your time to watch Dr. Felitti tell the story yourself.
His personal research and work eventually led to a partnership with the CDC in the mid 90s to launch the largest study of its kind into the impacts of childhood trauma on adult health outcomes. The study involved more than 17,000 people and was built around a simple 10 question survey. The 10 questions were about three types of adverse childhood experiences: abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction.
Dr. Robert Anda who cofounded and helped design the study would later say “This was the first time that researchers had looked at the effects of several types of trauma rather than the consequences of just one. What the data revealed was mind-boggling. I wept. I saw how much people had suffered and I wept.”
The questions included:
Two thirds of the study participants answered yes to at least one of these questions. Researchers were able to discern noticeable increases in various types of health risk among participants with two and three yesses. But where things really started to jump out was when participants had four or more of these experiences in childhood.
Participant’s with four or more of these “ACEs” saw health and well-being risks skyrocket. They had a 240% greater risk of hepatitis, were 390% more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema or chronic bronchitis), and a 240% higher risk of a sexually- transmitted disease. They were twice as likely to be smokers, 12 times more likely to have attempted suicide, 7 times more likely to be alcoholic, and 10 times more likely to have injected street drugs.
The evidence showed that “people with high ACE scores are more likely to be violent, to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions, more depression, more auto- immune diseases, and more work absences. Persons with multiple categories of childhood exposure were likely to have multiple health risk factors later in life, including those for several of the leading causes of death in adults.”
The results of the original study have been duplicated many times. Since the study was done in the mid 90s, the field of neuroscience has exploded and is helping explain why ACEs have such a significant impact on later life and why it’s so important to address these problems as early in a child’s life as possible.
There are too many of us who are affected directly or indirectly by trauma to neglect exploring its social, relational, and mindset impacts. In my experience some of those impacts include.
And these are just a few. In a follow up article, I will be discussing some of these in more depth.
We cannot afford to live, work, and worship in environments that demand a facade of conformation and do not give us the space or empowerment to heal, transform, and grow.