Research supports a strong connection between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and addiction. The most common ACEs are (physical, emotional, and sexual) abuse, physical and emotional neglect, having a family member incarcerated, having a parent mentally ill or addicted, witnessing domestic violence, and having parents who are separated or divorced.

A study of 26,000 participants, completed in the mid-1980s by Keiser Permanente, showed that about two-thirds had experienced one or more ACEs, and of that two-thirds, 87 percent had experienced two or more ACEs. The research revealed that four ACEs was the tipping point with the participants for some startling statistics: a 240 percent greater risk of hepatitis; 390 percent more likely to have COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease); seven times more likely to become addicted to alcohol; ten times more likely to have injected street drugs; and twelve times more likely to have attempted suicide (all compared to those who reported zero ACEs).

The toxic stress of these experiences in childhood causes the body to release hormones, which damage the developing brain’s ability to effectively process stress. The substances become the maladaptive solution to turning off the constant survival response in the brain.

Of course, the human body is not designed to live in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze. Stress research pioneer Mary Dallman completed a study using rats with their adrenal (the stress regulation) glands removed. In the study, four groups of rats received sucrose, lard, alcohol, or nothing. After all of the groups experienced chronic stress, the only group of rats that died was the group that did not receive anything. This study and others show that substances turn off the stress response temporarily, which sets the brain up for powerful drives to return to the substance.

ACEs often present in clusters, with the drive to addiction increasing as those events accumulate in childhood—where a child has no control over those experiences. Helping an addicted person make sense of their “choices,” their pain, and their addiction drive can release some of the shame involved in the bad things they may do as a result of the overwhelming drive to obtain and abuse substances.

Experiencing ACEs encodes false information about the child as the brain is attempting to make sense (achieve coherence) out of the ACEs—and defaults to itself being the problem. Some common circuits/expectations encoded during ACEs are: “I don’t matter” / “I’m bad” / “I have no power” / “I can’t do good” / “I’m not lovable” / “I’m not worthy” / “I can’t have joy.”

Addicted individuals live their lives within the belief system of many of these stress circuits—as though these circuits are truth. But the brain is designed to heal. The stress circuits encoded during those ACEs can be rewired through effective treatment. We can be empowered to engage in prevention through addressing the 10 most common ACEs in our community and families. What is your ACE score? What would/will you do differently than the generation that raised you?

Find out more here.

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— Melissa founded the Renovo Center earlier this year in Kearneysville, WV—providing integrative mental health and substance abuse counseling services with a “no shame” research- and brain-based approach.

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