When you are playing cards, aces are usually a good thing. But when it comes to the likelihood of developing a substance use disorder as an adult, ACEs—short for adverse childhood experiences—are decidedly bad. In the card game, more aces in your hand mean you are likely to win. In life, more ACEs in your past mean you are more likely to struggle with substances.
What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
It probably goes without saying that almost no one has a perfect childhood. We are all subject to disappointments, to mistakes, to the effects of difficulties experienced by our parents. But when these common enough issues rise to the level of traumatic events, they fall under the heading of adverse childhood experiences. ACEs fall into a number of categories (note that this list is not necessarily definitive).
ACES related to a child’s parents:
- Parental deportation
- Parental incarceration
- Parental mental illness
- Parental separation or divorce
- Parental substance dependence
ACEs related to a child’s living situation:
- Being placed in foster care
- Living in a war zone
- Living in an unsafe area
- Moving repeatedly
- Being an immigrant
ACEs related to a child’s experience of abuse, neglect, or violence
- Physical, emotional, and/or abuse/neglect
- Being bullied
- Domestic violence
- Experiencing racism
- Witnessing abuse of a sibling
- Witnessing violence outside the home
- Involvement with the criminal justice system
- Zero-tolerance discipline policies at school
What Are the Consequences of Adverse Childhood Experiences?
We can probably agree that the list above is full of things that could be traumatic to a child (or an adult, for that matter). But you might be wondering what that has to do with the likelihood that someone will develop a substance use disorder later in life.
It’s a fair question—and one that has been the subject of several studies. Those studies indicate that if a person experiences four of the ACEs listed above during their childhood, they are up to four times more likely to use drugs or alcohol—and to start using them at a younger age. They are also four times more likely to suffer from a mental health disorder like depression, are seven times more likely to develop alcoholism, and are twelve times more likely to have suicidal thoughts or to actually attempt to commit suicide.
Add one more ACE from the list to a person’s personal experiences, and the potential problems increase, as people with five ACEs in their past are three times more likely to misuse prescription pain management medications. They are also ten times more likely to use illegal drugs, which may, of course, lead to a substance use disorder.
Why is this the case? Well, studies show that traumatic experiences have the power to change the makeup of our brains. For example, trauma may inhibit the function of the prefrontal cortex, which in turn inhibits our impulse control. ACEs have also been shown to damage the reward centers of the brain, which can lead to substance use as a person tries to find ways to experience pleasure. Adverse childhood experiences can also lead to continuous activation of the amygdala, which controls our fear response. That means a person may experience the ongoing release of stress hormones at dangerous levels. All of these changes in the brain may represent its attempts to deal with traumatic events—and may make a person more susceptible to addiction issues.
How Should Adverse Childhood Experiences Be Addressed?
First and foremost, we want to note that if you are seeking treatment for a substance use disorder, it is absolutely essential that you tell your treatment team about ACEs in your past. Having a full picture of your history with trauma is a key part of crafting a personalized and effective treatment plan. Knowing what traumas you have experienced will shape the best approach to therapy and help determine which ongoing resources you might need to maintain your sobriety.
One treatment and therapy goal will be the development of personal resiliency. Building a toolkit of coping skills supported by a positive outlook and personal moral compass as well as cognitive flexibility and a strong support network will make it more likely that you can leave past traumas in the past while building a sober future.
Your personal resiliency can also be strengthened by being intentional about your physical and mental well-being. Good nutrition, restful and consistent sleep, regular exercise, mindfulness practice, and yoga—these things and many others will serve you well as you maintain your sobriety.
Deal Us In When You Are Ready to Deal with ACEs
At Wooded Glen Recovery Center, we know that your present problems with drugs or alcohol may have roots in your past. We have the expertise required to help you address adverse childhood experiences in ways that will improve your mental health and support your recovery from a substance use disorder. It is easy to let our past poison the present. It is tempting to believe our past has already ruined the future. But neither of those things is true. We are ready to help you reframe the present moment so you can move confidently—and soberly—into your future.