If you stopped people on the street in Shawnee and asked them why they thought teens drank alcohol or began smoking tobacco or marijuana, you’d probably get answers like peer pressure, media influence, role models, rebellion or fun.
It is unlikely that many people would say “toxic stress,” until recently. The science behind toxic stress or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has been explored and valued by professionals during the last 10 years. In fact, several agencies and organizations in Pottawatomie County are adopting trauma-informed approaches that assist in preventing ACEs or reducing their impact on the individual.
The ACEs study began in the 1980s when insurance and health care company, Kaiser Permanente, interviewed the dropouts from their weight-loss program to find out why they quit despite successfully losing weight. What they found was that more than half of the dropouts had been sexually abused as children. As the participants began to lose weight, they felt vulnerable rather than satisfied. Many reported that having more weight served as protection from unwanted advances.
Researchers at the company were so curious that they surveyed more than 17,000 of their own employees to find out the types of stressors individuals may have experienced growing up as well as the impact those stressors had on health outcomes when they became adults.
The study identified 10 major stressors:
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- A family member who is depressed or diagnosed with a mental illness
- A family member who is incarcerated
- Witnessing a mother being abused
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason
- A family member who is addicted to alcohol or another substance
- Verbal abuse
You may decide to count how many you had growing up prior to the age of 18. Don’t worry; you are not alone. Nearly 64 percent of adults have at least one, and those with one have an 87 percent chance of experiencing two or more. Science is also finding other stressors to possibly add to the list, such as natural disasters, racism and historical trauma.
Stress is not bad in and of itself. Stress produces chemicals in our brain that motivates us to start a new project, complete a difficult task or care for the people around us. We learn to cope, develop confidence and work through problems. However, experiencing major stressors like the ones listed above on a consistent basis can have a significant impact on a person’s brain, social connection and coping skills.
For instance, an adult that reports an ACE score of four or more is more likely to experience:
- Attempted suicides
- Multiple marriages
- Health related issues
- Chronic depression
- Auto-immune diseases
- Work absences
- Substance use disorders
Perhaps you can identify with some of the ACE categories but see yourself as healthy and happy. You may have had factors in your life that built up your resilience. You had at least one adult who cared for you, had your back when the going got tough and loved you dearly through it. Maybe you had friends whom you could confide in or talk to when you needed companionship. Maybe you had teachers or coaches in your life who noticed that you were capable and helped encourage you throughout school. Perhaps you developed a belief that your life could get better, and you could make it happen. These are factors that increased your resilience and enabled you to move through these ACEs with fewer consequences.
So, as we move about our days and share space with one another, let’s consider that everyone has a set of past experiences that impacts the adults we are today. Those of us who can identify with the ACEs have most likely found ways to cope that have brought about both achievements and negative consequences.
Acknowledging ACEs is not a way of placing blame or offering excuses but rather a way of creating awareness that some of our bad habits or health problems as adults may have their roots in experiences we had little choice over as young people. Maybe we are not lazy, uncaring, sickly and irresponsible. Maybe we are doing our best to survive and are looking for healthier connections and options in order to properly heal.
Jan Tipton, MAT, CPS, has been working in the substance abuse prevention field for more than 25 years. She is a prevention specialist working at Gateway to Prevention and Recovery. She is passionate about all children getting a chance to grow up and achieve their dreams.