A Look Into Adverse Childhood Experiences and Addiction
In the mid-1990s, a healthcare company, Kaiser Permanente, conducted a large survey of its Southern California HMO membership. The survey's purpose was to determine if there was a direct correlation between childhood experiences and current health status. The study found a significant connection between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the prevalence of the chronic disease, mental illness, and other negative consequences. The Kaiser survey and subsequent research specifically found a connection between adverse childhood experiences and addiction.
How are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Defined?
Adverse childhood experiences are those that cause trauma and stress. They are typically characterized by abuse, neglect, or dysfunction. The initial ACE survey measured ten types of childhood trauma:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Verbal abuse
- A family member is depressed or diagnosed with a mental illness
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- A family member is addicted to alcohol or another substance
- Witnessing a mother being abused by a father
- A family member is in prison
- Losing a parent to separation or divorce
Later ACE surveys also included:
- Gender discrimination
- Bullying by an adult or peer
- Witnessing a father being abused by a mother
- Witnessing a sibling being abused
- One or more family members had a substance abuse problem
- Witnessing violence outside of the home
- Living in an unsafe neighborhood
- Involvement in the foster care system
- Losing a family member to deportation
- Living in a war zone
A high score on the ACE survey indicates that a person has had multiple adverse childhood experiences.
Link Between High ACE Score and Poor Health
The ACE survey and subsequent studies found that adverse childhood experiences harm a child’s developing brain and immune systems. The damage is so great that it affects cognitive functioning, and coping with stress and negative emotions. Down the line, those who have experienced four or more of these traumas have a higher likelihood of developing chronic diseases, including mental illness. The type of trauma experienced isn’t a significant factor in determining negative health outcomes.
Adverse Childhood Experiences and Addiction
Addiction is one of the health problems correlated with a high ACE score. If you compare against those who score zero for ACEs, those who experienced two traumas are 4 times more likely to have a drug or alcohol problem. People who reported five or more traumas are 7-10 times more likely to become addicted to illegal drugs and 3 times more likely to misuse prescription pain medication.
Independent research has uncovered more information about the relationship between ACE scores and substance abuse:
- ACE scores can predict early drinking behaviors.
- Childhood abuse and parental substance abuse carry a higher risk of mental illness and substance use disorders later in life (50 or older).
- Each additional ACE increases the chances of early illicit drug use by two to four times.
- Each additional ACE is associated with a 62% increase in prescription pain medication misuse.<?sup>
ACE Measurements as Guidance
Adverse childhood experiences are just one predictor of substance abuse. Other factors, such as genetics, peer groups, dual diagnosis, type of drug used, and the method of using may also increase the likelihood that an individual will become dependent or addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Those with traumatic childhood experiences and whose neural development has stalled seem to be at a disadvantage. What kinds of interventions can help those who seem to be predestined to face dire circumstances in adulthood due to how they were treated in childhood?
According to scientists who have spent years studying the effects of adverse childhood experiences, resilience training and practice may be the answer.
The theory that the brain is malleable and can change in response to the environment is encouraging. When you replace poor coping skills with efforts to build resilience, it IS possible to reverse the damage. A large body of research shows how exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, adequate sleep, and healthy relationships can improve physical and mental health.
Early data points to encouraging results that community intervention and counseling may help heal older children and adolescents with a history of childhood trauma. An increasing number of organizations offer programs that help teach parenting skills and school readiness to help prevent traumatic stress.
It’s Not Too Late To Overcome the Negative Effects of Childhood Trauma
If you suffer from adverse childhood experiences and addiction, you still have the opportunity to learn new skills and better ways to manage life’s stressors.
The professional and compassionate staff at Spring Gardens Recovery can create a custom program to guide you on your path to sobriety. Our holistic approach to healing focuses on self-awareness and self-discovery. This approach allows you to finally find the strength to persevere against mental roadblocks and discover new ways to cope. After completion, our program will equip you to face challenges and have a greater chance of a successful recovery.
Contact us to learn more about the type of program that is most appropriate for you.
Samantha Nettleton, CCTP, CMHIMP is the Chief Operating Officer and Clinical Director for Spring Gardens Recovery. After completing and receiving her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Human Services (Concentrations in Mental Health & Addiction Counseling), she became licensed for the State of Florida as a Mental Health Counselor. She has also been a recovery coach since 2012. Samantha specializes in Trauma, Personality Disorders, Substance Abuse, Process Addictions, and Other Mental Health Disorders.