In the 1990s, an exposure was identified to be so severe that it could literally crawl under the skin and change our physiology. The exposure can impact the immune system, our brain development, and even how our DNA is transcribed.
People who come into regular contact with it are at a higher risk of heart disease, chronic health conditions, and so much more.
Even today, the Doctors in many countries are not educated in routine screening and treatment for this severe exposure.
So why is it not getting the attention it needs despite the brutal outcomes? What exactly is the exposure?
It's not a virus or a pathogen but the adversities faced in childhood.
Anything that causes a child (ages 0-18) to experience significant stress, distress, and misery, falls under adverse childhood experiences.
CDC and Kaiser were the first to identify the cruel impacts faced by a person throughout their life in an experiment named the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). These findings were significantly alarming yet deeply insightful. The study was conducted from 1995 to1997 in two sets of data collections.
They showed that the effects of childhood trauma on adults are far more extensive than previously understood.
Over 17,000 adults were questioned about their history of a possible adverse childhood.
These questions fell into three main categories:
1. Household challenges: Questions about participants' experiences growing up in their household, such as whether a parent or guardian was abused or addicted to drugs or alcohol, or whether the participant witnessed domestic violence.
2. Neglect and abuse: Questions about experiences of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse or neglect, as well as emotional and physical neglect.
3. Household dysfunction: Questions about family members' mental illness, incarceration, or separation/divorce, as well as whether the participant was raised in a household with a single parent or where a parent or family member was lost to separation, divorce, or death.
Participants of the study got one score for every ‘yes’ they responded to the questions about these subjects.
A few things became clear afterwards.
One, ACEs are extremely common.
Two, they are highly interrelated. The occurrence of one category of ACE suggests a possibly strong correlation with the other categories.
Three, the higher the ACE score, the higher the possibility of developing negative health outcomes; including but not limited to higher risk of cancer, weakened immunity system, and lower life expectancy.
The study is still ongoing and constantly evolving with current times.
Abused teens more often develop these kinds of experiences, along with emotional stress, and substance use. Successful intervention during the adolescent years is highly important.
Dr. Suraj Sood, Psychologist, PhD: Consciousness and Society
Children with an ACE score of 4 or more are more likely to have behavioral problems, including aggression, anxiety, and hyperactivity.
Strokes are more than twice as likely to occur in individuals with an ACE score of 4 or more.
Adults with an ACE score of 4 or more were 2.7 times more likely to have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
In the case of heart diseases, the risk is twice as much.
For depression, the risk is 4 times higher.
For attempted suicide, the risk is 12 times more.
But how exactly are all these things intertwined?
The reason for this is the stress response system: a complex network of neural and hormonal systems between the body and the brain.
Imagine you're alone in a dark alley, and a man with a knife stops you. You know that you can not outrun him, you can not easily escape.
When our brain registers a threat, it activates the stress response system.
So your heart will start to hammer against your chest, and your blood pressure will rise.
Cold sweat will cover you, and it would be a struggle to breathe.
This is your body preparing you to either fight or flee.
It's a normal response to stress, nothing to worry about.
But what if this happens every night? He is always there. You can never really escape. Not him, not the overwhelming rush of emotions that threaten to burst you out.
And how does that end?
The developing brains of children are much more vulnerable to such events.
Long exposure to stress hormones can damage the body's tissues and organs, increase the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, and impair immune system functioning.
It causes changes to brain development that leaves lasting effects on mental health.
1. Prevention Through Awareness
Early intervention and prevention are crucial in mitigating the negative effects of ACEs. It can be done by implementing evidence-based interventions and policies at the individual, community, and societal levels.
This can involve informing the harmful impacts of ACE to families and caretakers the same way other common yet serious issues, like diabetes, common cold, or even fire safety, are made well known.
It will not only greatly reduce the risk of ACE but also promote healthy relationships. When people strive to be more careful and understanding towards each other, when they realize how their subconscious actions or perhaps their own unhealed trauma can cause long-term harm, more thoughtfulness will be practiced.
We can develop better-coping mechanisms and a nurturing safe environment for our younger generation when we have the proper knowledge.
And if we identify with these symptoms ourselves then at least we know what our options are.
2. The Right Policies
Knowledge is a powerful thing, but it’s seldom enough on its own. We also need policies that promote affordable and accessible healthcare, and mental health services, and help raise awareness.
Additionally, policies that address poverty, violence, and social inequality will have a profound impact on reducing ACEs risk.
We need policies that are accessible, address the urgency and importance of ACEs, and work towards building a safer environment.
3. Role of Healthcare Providers
Healthcare providers should conduct routine screenings in not just hospitals but also by going to places like schools or communities. It can raise awareness, highlight the issue, and also help people get the support they need.
Implementing multidisciplinary practices that can work against different aspects of ACEs is another thing we can do. But we can also collaborate with other people in this field. We can form a bridge between the public and the policymakers, and join hands with NGOs who also share the same goals as us.
Once we understand the problem and accept it, it becomes easier for the solutions to unravel.
(Edited by M Subha Maheswari)