The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study scientifically validates something many physicians, including me, have experienced. The environment that you are raised in can have a significant impact on your health and habits for a long, long time. The ACE study comprehensively documents the long-term affects of abuse and household dysfunction, linking it to health risks and even death. You are not your past. You are not your genes. But certain health outcomes are tied to certain risk factors. This is actually great news! While you can’t change your genes or your past, you CAN make changes in your life today that reduce or even eliminate those risk factors… And then, you can even take it up a notch and flourish!
In 1998, Dr. Vincent Felitti, the head researcher on the ACE study, published his findings in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. This huge study was conducted with more than 17,000 participants, all middle-class and middle-aged, by the Kaiser Permanente Health Care Center in San Diego. What he found was that adverse childhood experiences were vastly more common than was previously recognized or acknowledged.
In fact, slightly more than half of the participants had grown up in
- dysfunctional homes, with missing or alcoholic (or drug using) parents, or with a depressed or mentally ill person,
- had suffered sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, or
- a experienced a combination of “a” and “b.”
Adverse childhood events often lead to adult shame and illness. Back in the early 1980s, I realized that every case of severe PMS I saw was in a woman who had come from an alcoholic home or was currently residing in one. Many others with chronic pelvic pain had been sexually abused. This sort of information was what prompted me to write Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom in the first place. My original work was based on my observations in a small town in Maine. The ACE study shows that women’s experiences are the same the world over.
The ACE study also showed that if a participant had lived in a dysfunctional home and/or had been a victim of abuse, he or she was more likely to have or die early from significant health problems. These include heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic bronchitis or emphysema, and diabetes.
Perhaps more troubling, were the harmful lifestyle choices, habits, and mental outlooks, which were common to many participants. These disabling cycles include smoking, severe obesity, lack of physical activity, experiencing depression, attempting suicide, considering oneself an alcoholic, using illicit drugs, using injected drugs, having 50 or more sexual partners, or a history of a sexually transmitted disease.
Many women stay locked in disabling cycles because of the shame they felt as children. Although not correct by any means, it is quite common for children to think they are to blame, not the person who abused them or exposed them to a horrible situation. Because of this shame, they’ve been led to believe that they’re the only ones with the problem. They may even avoid dealing with the problem because “No one could possibly understand how bad it is for me.” This is part of the crippling effects of shame—everyone else is “normal” except them.
You can’t change the past, but you can definitely change the decisions you’ve made based on past experience. The past is not responsible for how you feel now. You can take steps to feel better. When you do this, you rewire your brain and body in ways that support health and well-being. It isn’t the actual abuse or shaming that is so painful for the child. It is the meaning that the child ascribes to it that does the damage. For example, a child decides that she is inherently bad because she had been abused or beaten. Or she decides that she can’t trust her instincts because the person she loves and depends upon is not trustworthy.
If any of this resonates with you, I encourage you to learn more about the ACE study. Your ability to heal and ultimately flourish may depend on your willingness to bring these issues to light. In the end, the only way to recover from these adverse events is to get them “off your chest,” understand that you have the ability to heal from anything and everything, and, most of all, that you are inherently worthy and lovable!
Reference: Vincent J. Felitti, et al, The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study: Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults, American Journal of Preventive Medicine 1998;14(4)