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Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events or situations that happen during childhood and lead to long-term stress. This means that even if your current situation is trauma-free, past trauma can still impact you today. Understanding ACEs can help you recognize how trauma from your past may affect your thoughts, emotions, and behavior in the present.

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In this article, we look at causes, symptoms, and triggers of ACEs, and strategies for coping and recovery. This subject matter can be difficult. We encourage you to be educated while also practicing self-care.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and exposure to stress

Common experiences that can become ACEs include:

  • Abuse or neglect.
  • Being bullied by a peer or adult.
  • Racism and gender discrimination.
  • Involvement with the foster care system.
  • Witnessing violence to others in the home, or outside the home.
  • A family member with mental illness, addiction, or incarceration.
  • Losing a parent to separation, divorce, deportation, or other reason.
  • Natural disasters, such as floods, tornadoes, wildfires, or pandemics.

During childhood, our brains are developing and vulnerable to stress caused by ACEs. Long-term exposure to stress hormones can change brain structure and function, immune system functions, and development.

Impacts of ACEs

In Washington, as of 2018, 26% of adults have experienced 3 or more ACEs. That’s important because ACEs have lasting and significant impacts, even into adulthood. And ACEs aren’t just personal issues — they impact all of us. According to the CDC:

  • Preventing ACEs could potentially reduce many health conditions. For example, by preventing ACEs, up to 1.9 million heart disease cases and 21 million depression cases could have been potentially avoided.
  • ACEs are costly. The economic and social costs to families, communities, and society totals hundreds of billions of dollars each year. A 10% reduction in ACEs in North America could equate to an annual savings of $56 billion.

Recognizing and dealing with the impacts of ACEs can reduce incidences of chronic disease, mental illness, and violence.

Symptoms of ACEs

How can you tell if you’ve been impacted by past or present ACEs? One way to start is by taking an ACE quiz, like this one. The questions can help you identify common ACEs. (Please note: The questions ask about experiences that may be difficult to think about. It’s ok to stop taking the quiz and reach out for support instead.)

Adults struggling with the impacts of ACEs may have:

  • Difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships.
  • Unstable work histories.
  • Struggles with finances.
  • Depression throughout life.
  • Chronic diseases and leading causes of death such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, or suicide.

Recognizing trauma triggers

To be triggered means to have an emotional reaction to something that reminds you of past trauma. They can be many things, such as a person, place, sound, smell, situation, or event. Triggers can also be a memory, a sensation, or an emotion.

“For someone with a history of trauma, being around anything that reminds them of a traumatic experience can make them feel like they’re experiencing the trauma all over again,” writes Arlin Cuncic for Verywell Mind. “Your ultimate goal should be to detach yourself from the trigger, recenter, and focus on your coping strategy.”

Coping with ACEs

Strategies to help adults recover from ACEs include:

  • Journaling.
  • Spending time in nature.
  • Yoga or other physical exercise.
  • Meditation or breathing exercises.
  • Connecting with a supportive person in your life.
  • Therapy with a mental health professional.

According to lead researcher Christina Bethell, PhD, MPH, MBA, “Children and adults can thrive despite their accumulation of negative childhood experiences.”

Resources and support make a difference

The self-care we practice matters. The support and resources we have also matter. If you’re concerned about the impacts of ACEs or trauma on your well-being, an EAP counselor can help you understand your experiences and identify resources you may not even be aware of. Visit the EAP employee web page to see how a counselor can help or to request an appointment.

Washington State Employee Assistance Program. 50 years, 1972 to 2022.

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The Washington State Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a free, confidential program created to promote the health, safety and well-being of public service employees and their household adult family members. EAP provides counseling and other resources to support well-being, address workplace concerns, and help with legal and financial issues. Reach out to EAP online or call 877–313–4455. To find out if the Washington State EAP serves your agency or organization, contact your supervisor or human resources department.

Links to external websites are provided as a convenience. The Employee Assistance Program and the Department of Enterprise Services do not endorse the content, services, or viewpoints found at these external sites. Information is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the counsel or advice of a qualified health or legal professional. For further help, questions, or referral to community resources for specific problems or personal concerns, contact the EAP or other qualified professional.

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We deliver high quality, cost effective support services to state government. DES features expertise in statewide contracting, training, printing & mail operations, human resources and financial systems, facilities management, and care of the state capitol grounds and buildings.

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