Someone you love is dealing with the fallout of trauma and building understanding around it is the best way to be supportive as well as to understand your own inner workings.
Trauma is not a cultural buzz word, it’s real and most if not all of us are carrying the scars. As empaths and sensitives there are many situations that others may not deem as trauma that FEEL like trauma in our sensitive nervous systems.
Sadly, a great number of people have gone through it in childhood.
There are many who want to think of childhood trauma as being all about the kid who was beaten, starved, or sexually abused. These experiences are deeply traumatic, but they are not the only situations that define childhood trauma.
Many children have grown up under exposure to toxic stress and that experience IS also traumatic. The link between auto-immune diseases and toxic stress has been well documented. In Nadine Burke-Harris’s book the Deepest Well she talked about a study that discovered those with two or more ACES had twice the odds of hospitalization for auto-immune disease as someone with no ACES.
Whether a person was a victim of severe abuse or dealt with the ongoing stress of a difficult childhood, those experiences had a long-lasting effect on them and the adult they grew up to be.
The desire some people have to minimize difficult life experiences is doing great harm as those who need help don’t get it. This isn’t about blame or shame but about expanding our awareness and changing things for the better.
What are ACES?
The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and Kaiser Permanente (a huge insurance company) ran the ACEs study to investigate the connection between childhood challenges and well-being later in life.
The study found there is indeed an identifiable connection between childhood trauma and adult health, mental health and addiction issues. In fact, the more challenges that were reported in childhood, the more wellness challenges are seen in adulthood.
We can guess why a healthcare company would want to understand these connections. They’re looking for ways to reduce the need for expensive health care. Their motivations were driven by a desire for profit but it’s had a powerful impact on the people and organizations that work with children and the adults they become.
The grand takeaway from the study is this: Adverse Childhood Experiences are trauma. The developing brain and body suffer under trauma, just like they do when they’re undernourished or exposed to environmental toxicity. The negative consequences are predictable. A person’s response to trauma is in fact, normal.
Is this a wild idea? Have you always thought of the problems people experience after a trauma as abnormal? Dysfunctional? Broken? That’s understandable, but not the reality of it.
Now, the behaviors related to a trauma response can be viewed as dysfunctional, especially when they create problems for the person in pain and those around them. It’s helpful to separate the person from the behaviors and keep in mind that they share a common response to what’s happened to them in their life.
So what are ACES exactly? Think of them as a spectrum of experiences, from what some may consider mild to what everyone acknowledges as severe.
Adverse Childhood Experiences can include:
- All kinds of abuse, including verbal/emotional. A child doesn’t have to have been struck to experience abuse.
- Bullying and violence that comes from siblings or other children.
- Experiencing homelessness.
- Exposure to substance abuse.
- Being a witness to domestic violence.
- Having a parent incarcerated.
- Going through a divorce.
- Experiencing loss.
- Being abandoned.
- Medical trauma.
- Natural disasters and war.
- Experiencing discrimination, racism, sexism, or any other form.
- Violence in the surrounding community.
- Having involvement with the child welfare system.
Okay, now having read through the list you might be thinking, ‘Heck, I’ve experienced some of this but it wasn’t trauma.’
This is a common response and one that many of us have. It’s much easier (especially as sensitives and empaths) to think it’s us rather than the experiences we have had.
You may have experienced what has been identified as an Adverse Childhood Experience but always felt safe and supported by your family and community. You developed resiliency that served you well and you don’t ‘feel traumatized’ by it.
Turns out that resiliency is the power tool that counteracts trauma with fewer lasting effects.
Just like the studies around ACES have confirmed that childhood traumas are common, there are studies that have identified ways kids can be protected from the worst impact.
- Kids who have responsive and nurturing adults in their life are better able to deal with the fall out of trauma. When parents, teachers and other caregivers are resilient, they model the ability to recover from difficult experiences.
- Kids who feel they are part of a strong family and warm community heal faster and more completely.
- Kids who know their basic needs are met and will continue to be can focus on moving through all the tough feelings they have.
- Kids who are given the opportunity to build social and emotional skills become more resilient.
ACES are measurable
There is an Adverse Childhood Experiences Questionnaire that allows you to discover your ACE Score. This score is meant as a guideline for you to deeper your understanding of yourself. This is not meant as a tool to be used for shaming or blaming in any way.
Note: Before you begin, check in to assure that you’re in a safe space with time to think and experience feelings about your responses.
What follows are yes or no questions.
- Did a parent or other adult in the household often swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? OR Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
- Did a parent or other adult in the household often push, grab, slap, or throw something at you OR ever hit you so hard that you had marks and were injured?
- Did an adult or person at least five years older than you ever touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? OR try to have oral, anal, or vaginal sex with you?
- Did you often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? OR Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
- Did you often feel that you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? OR Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
- Were your parents ever divorced or separated?
- Was one of your parents often pushed, grabbed, stabbed, or had something thrown at her? OR sometimes or often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist or something hard? OR Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
- Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?
- Was a household member depressed or mentally ill or did a household member attempt suicide?
- Did a household member go to prison?
Add up your ‘Yes’ answers and give yourself a score: _____
ACES include three types of experiences: Abuse, Neglect, and Household Dysfunction. In the original study of around 17,000 people, only 36% could answer no to all the questions. That means 64% of people have at least one.
12.4% of participants can say yes to four or more. Let that sink in.
ACEs affect our behavior
What sort of impact do the ACEs have on us? They learned through the evaluation of the study that as the number of ACEs increases, the risk of having some kind of negative health outcome increases as well.
ACEs affect our behaviors.
Trauma may have hindered our ability to manage our emotions and we walk the world with anger issues, being short tempered and unkind to others. We may struggle to maintain friendships and sabotage relationships. We may turn our emotions inward against ourselves through overeating, drinking too much or acting out sexually.
Kids simply can’t make sense of the tough stuff that happens to them and around them. They find ways to cope or escape and while these tools help them survive their circumstances, they create more problems later in life.
ACEs affect our mental health.
Depression and anxiety are common consequences of trauma. Some of our brains respond with more complex reactions that lead to other psychological problems.
ACEs have an impact on our actual physical health.
Diabetes, cancer, heart disease, stroke… there are observable connections between ACES and adult illness.
Types of Trauma
There are three types of trauma often referred to in psychology articles:
- Acute Trauma. A single distressing event like a car accident, an assault or perhaps a big natural disaster.
- Chronic Trauma. When someone goes through long term stress, like childhood neglect, school bullying, or witnessing a parent’s domestic abuse.
- Complex Trauma. Being exposed to multiple traumatic experiences, often involving a personal relationship.
It’s nice to be aware that trauma is a spectrum of experiences and our individual response to trauma is highly nuanced. Nobody reacts to situations the same way. When we are sensitive we feel these experiences more deeply than many.
Have you ever met someone, learned about their difficult childhood, and been amazed at how they’ve been able to cope?
Have you ever met someone who for all that we know, seemed to have a perfect life, but they struggle to cope with the simplest of challenges?
Having childhood trauma isn’t a guarantee of a hot mess life. Trauma met with supportive relationships and opportunities to heal may produce fewer long term issues. Trauma met with disinterest and shame may lead to issues that create overwhelming problems later.
Hopefully, thinking about trauma this way has expanded your awareness and created some light bulb moments for you.
Acknowledging that both the big traumas and the smaller long lasting traumas have influenced all of us goes a long way in creating a safer environment to move forward. Just being aware can be a powerful gift for the person who’s been questioning whether there’s something wrong with them. So many of my empathic and sensitive clients have spent much of their lives in this space.
Space to Process
Imagine feeling like a failure because you deal with depression or have had a lifelong battle with a substance.
When someone dealing with the fallout of trauma gets a good look at the ACEs study, they are invited to realize that what they are experiencing is a normal response. Trauma has an impact and it’s not their fault.
When a parent trying to help their traumatized child gains an understanding of ACEs, they realize the behaviors they see are not bad. They are a normal response to trauma.
Coming to understand ACES can be like having a light turned on in a dark house. Once you can see what’s really going on, you can do something about it.
Anyone dealing with the aftermath of Adverse Childhood Experiences can be encouraged. The trauma responses they’ve lived with aren’t just part of their personality as some have feared.
There is hope for healing from trauma.
We can learn and practice new skills for interacting with people and circumstances that change our lives for the better.
Nothing that happened to us as a child is our fault and yet everything we are dealing with now is our responsibility going forward.
As someone realizing you have come through ACEs, there are actions you can take to begin to heal.
- Seek support from providers who demonstrate familiarity with ACEs.
- Go to see your regular doctor. Tell them about your ACEs. Talk about your health and what you feel in your body.
- Practice self-care. Start small and keep at it.
- Practice self-compassion. Forgive yourself for every perceived mistake.
- Try meditation. Even five minutes can do wonders.
- Watch Ted Talks, listen to podcasts and read books about ACEs and impacts of trauma. Remind yourself as often as needed that you didn’t do this to yourself.
- Choose to spend time feeling good. Laugh. Create. Play.
- Volunteer and find ways to be involved with other humans.
Healing is a journey
No one thing you do will turn everything around. Therapy is a process. Healing is a journey. These statements feel oversimple, but they are true!
Commit yourself to taking life day by day, knowing that while a lot happened to you in the past, you are steering the ship going forward and every tiny move in a new direction is to be honored and celebrated.
As a friend or family member, you can help your loved ones have space to heal as well.
- Let go of judgment of their trauma responses and behaviors.
- Make good eye contact when you’re talking.
- Acknowledge their feelings and don’t try to change or correct them.
- If they’re willing, give nice long hugs. Aim for 20 seconds.
- Give warm authentic words of affirmation.
- Invite them to do things with you – or join them in what they’re doing. Your presence means everything.
- Offer support for their healing activities. Offer to watch kids when they have therapy appointments or drop off a meal on a day where they’ve been working hard.
- When they’re ready, offer to help them make more community connections. Volunteer together or join group activities.
Know that healing from trauma is a lifelong venture.
Perhaps you might also be interested in this blog post about the way trauma shows up in your business.