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ACEs: Childhood trauma hurts adults

FAIRMONT — Whether or not we are the sum of our experiences is a question long debated in human history. However, a scientific consensus slowly taking shape states that negative experiences in childhood affect how people interpret and react to the world around them.

Known as ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) science, the framework studies state that negative childhood experiences can range from physical, sexual and verbal abuse; to neglect; to dealing with family members with depression or addictions: to witnessing abuse; to losing a loved one. The experiences cause an individual to live under a constant state of “toxic stress,” which leads to a larger risk of chronic health problems as adults.

Liz Odom of New Directions Healing Center in Fairmont is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor. She discussed why she believes the view is useful in addressing how we approach life, beginning with how the research got started.

“Basically, there was a doctor in southern California conducting a very large obesity study,” she said. “He was finding over time that a bunch of people were dropping out and he didn’t understand why. He was really confused because these were people that were losing large amounts of weight.

“He called them in and asked them questions, and it turned out all the ones who had dropped out were sex-abuse survivors. The extra weight had been serving a purpose, making them feel safe by staying away from any kind of sexual attention.”

Further studies led to measuring other life experiences outside of just sexual abuse. The results seemed to indicate a large connection between physical issues and higher numbers of adverse experiences.

“I became aware of ACEs at a training event I was at, and working with kids and adults who were struggling with all kinds of mental health issues,” Odom said. “Suddenly this survey was presented, and I was looking at it and thinking, ‘Wow,’ because what they found was that kids living in constant stress changes the way their brains work.

“It kind of takes the part of your brain that responds to stress in a healthy way and causes it to be on all the time.

“The other part of the ACEs that was really important to me at the time was there was this whole resiliency piece to it. What they found in other studies, not the ACEs, was that there were things that if a child had these in their life, it could offset the impact of the ACEs. They call these positive childhood experiences, and that was the part that struck me.

“It was saying we have these kids who are experiencing this (ACEs), or sometimes they’re older and they’ve been experiencing this, and asking how we can kind of inoculate them to where they don’t necessarily have all these long-term health issues as adults. The higher number of these (positive childhood experiences), the more protection you have against the long-term effect of the ACEs.”

Odom was excited to help children by building communities around the ACEs studies that would be supportive. But she also had a realization that involves her own personal attachment to her story.

“I did the ACEs survey, and I realized that I had a pretty high number myself,” she said. “Suddenly it made sense why I had several things like cancer and arthritis, but now what do I do? I’m in my 50s and there are a lot of people also in their 40s and 30s that are not going to be mentored.

“So I kept asking what we do for those people? The answer I kept getting from very well-meaning community members was that they really didn’t know.”

Odom said the answer for her involves another branch of science dealing with neuroplasticity.

“When I first entered the field, they thought that people were stuck with the brain they have by the time they’re 5,” she said. “It’s kind of cemented in there for life. But that’s not what the new brain science is showing.

“The new brain science is showing that our brains are constantly re-doing themselves. So yes, you may have had a highly stressful childhood, yes you may have all these effects from it, but it’s never too late to start calming you brain down. But you have to know where it’s coming from.”

Odom concluded by saying that people need to take a holistic approach, focusing on things like exercise, dietary choices, possible medication, spiritual beliefs and therapy.

“I want people to have hope that while these things (ACEs) can happen, there’s always hope, the brain is always renewing itself,” she said. “We can’t change the past; we can’t always change the lives that we’ve had, but we can change the life that we’re going to have and the way that we move forward.”

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