What are ACES and how Does Childhood Stress Affect my Mental and Physical Health in Adulthood?
For the past few years, I've been trying to decipher lots of different physical symptoms that I can't seem to resolve. I'm sure most of you can relate, as this seems to be an increasingly common complaint. Whatever is plaguing you doesn't subside when making commonly recommended lifestyle changes like cutting out processed foods, meditating on the regular, or getting more fresh and air and sunlight (a few among many other common, universal things that will improve one's state of well being).
There seems to be something more, but the root is never found. One thing always leads to another and there never seems to be a clear path, let alone an ending.
I've seen every different practitioner you can imagine across the spectrum of healers. Everything from energy work to herbalists to naturopathic doctors to MDs to various specialists and everything in between.
Just recently I even mapped my genome, which proved to be hugely inspiring and gave me lots of new directions to explore in terms of a path to health and wholeness that is specific to me.
However, I'm beginning to think all of that may be secondary to "Adverse Childhood Experiences" (ACEs).
I've always known my childhood wasn't normal. I thought I had done my personal growth work around it and felt like I was in a place of acceptance around it. But the concept of ACEs and how they affect the hormones, glandular systems, and wiring of the brain makes so much sense.
This concept came into my awareness just recently when my boyfriend had another "episode" where he was exhibiting the same symptoms he did right before he had his (thankfully, so far) one and only seizure. He turned grey, his lips turned white, his motor function was impaired, etc.
I was nervous as fuck, and praying to fuck that he did not have another seizure.
This episode went on for about two hours, and in those two hours I was calm - holding his hand, stroking his hair, and politely carrying on with the friends whose house we happened to be at when this went down. This was the extreme opposite of what was happening on the inside. On the inside, I was terrified.
I used to think this was a positive trait of mine, and side note: what made me a great birth doula - the ability to stay calm under pressure. To be able to detach from emotions and maintain a cool demeanor for the best interests of everyone involved in the situation.
Maybe this is why I stopped attending births though: because I was burned out, and much quicker than the average person.
The ability to stay calm, act quickly, and shut down emotions in tense situations should be something you only have to call on every now and then.
It's how we're wired to react in extreme situations that hopefully aren't happening very often. Our cortisol and adrenaline rapidly fire so that we can have sharp mental skills and get ourselves quickly out of danger.
In a healthy person, the important hormones cortisol and adrenaline fire off and then quickly go back down to normal once the stressful situation is over.
But when you're in that stressful situations often, and your hormones are firing for prolonged periods of time - it changes how your brain is wired. You no longer have the ability to properly regulate your hormones and this throws your health out of balance.
And if these prolonged periods happen as a child, or worse - as a baby, it can affect your physical and emotional health as an adult. And will continue to affect you forever, until you realize it and begin to heal from it.
When I was comforting my boyfriend that night, I later noted that was probably how I spent the majority of my childhood - calm, but anxious and scared on the inside. People used to say that I was an angel of a child - always quiet, peaceful and content. Very self contained and a bother to no one.
However, in hindsight, I believe I was that way as a coping mechanism. To say my childhood was unstable is an understatement. We were always moving, I was always changing schools, extended family ties were always tense, and all of this was my normal.
My mom is bipolar and only worsened after having two babies close together in her late teens - me at 18 and my brother just 18 months later on her 20th birthday, the result of an affair she had when I was 9 months old. Through all of my years working in women's health I can now see that my mom had undiagnosed postpartum depression, among other things.
My sister was born when I was nine and my mom was 27. I believe after this birth she had postpartum psychosis as I have clear memories of her symptoms, episodes, and suicide attempt. And who knows - she probably had postpartum psychosis after her earlier births, but I don't have memory of those times.
Her mental illness was to blame for all of her volatile intimate relationships. She eventually divorced my dad, remarried, and had a roller coaster of a marriage to my step dad. Thankfully he was a nice guy and a good step dad, but was ultimately destroyed by my mom. I can't even count how many times they had knock down drag out fights that resulted in either the cops being called or my mom throwing all my step dad's belongings on the curb and locking him out.
It was during times like this or any of my mom's other episodes, that my brother and I would just hide in our rooms, play with our toys and pretend like nothing was happening. We made our own little world and learned to just stay out of the way until it was over.
On top of this, my mother's relationship with her own mother - my Nana - was strained. They were never close, though they both always tried and failed miserably. Nana was also mentally ill, though she controlled her illness with medication. Until she didn't. And she shot herself in the head when I was 14.
My mom continued to rapidly decline after that. Her drinking increased, her boyfriend's increased, and she became less of a mother and more of a "big sister" who usually paid the rent on time and made sure we had food.
I moved out two weeks shy of my 16th birthday.
My adult life was relatively stable, but I have always been consciously aware of how I was raised and how this has affected my well being as an adult.
From an article all about ACEs , "If you have been wondering why you’ve been struggling a little too hard for a little too long with your emotional and physical well-being —feeling as if you’ve been swimming against some invisible current that never ceases — this “aha” can come as a welcome relief."
It goes on to talk about how ACEs can predispose you to all kinds of shitty health problems as an adult.
But isn't this encouraging:
The article goes on to mention 8 ways you can begin to recover, and lists writing & yoga as two of the things.
These struck me in particular because I've always been a writer, and in the last couple of years I've been regularly participating in Jena Schwartz' online writing groups. I'm always trying to articulate to others how it's not writing to be a better writing, but rather: writing for mental health.
And now I have science to back me up.
More recent is my obsession with restorative yoga. Every summer for the last five years, Kris and I have left Phoenix and traveled to escape the heat and see the world. This year we're not. I've slowly been coming to terms with that and have been having lots of mini breakthroughs - realizing that this is the reason I'm staying put this summer.
To further prove that point - we won unlimited summer yoga passes to our favorite yoga studio. I figured we'd be going to flow classes every day and be in the best physical shape of our lives, but as it turns out all I've been wanting to do is restorative yoga. And I've been feeling great about it.
I used to think that to achieve the "high" at the end of yoga, I had to exert myself physically first.
That's not true at all.
After most restorative classes I feel like I've done much more than I could accomplish in any flow class with the distraction of the intense physical movements.
And what do you know, they say:
I think this explains the obsession with restorative yoga - it's intuitive.