How Your Bad Childhood Experiences Are Affecting You in Adulthood

Written by Matthew Sabatine

Trauma is a commonly used word that is commonly misunderstood, I believe. It is a term that is mostly coupled with earth-shattering, life-altering tragedies like car accidents, natural disasters, rape, massacres, mass shootings, robberies, neighborhood violence, domestic violence, etc. It is a term not properly linked to things like childhood neglect, abandonment, betrayal, verbal abuse, poverty, and regularly observing a parent or other loved ones suffer with mental illness and substance abuse in the home. Separation from your parent at a young age, whether because of divorce, incarceration, or premature death can be potentially traumatic. These potentially traumatic things that occur before age 18 are technically called adverse childhood experiences that have a relationship with 1) hazardous decisions and behaviors 2) long-lasting and recurring health problems 3) weakened potential for life achievements and 4) early death. [1]

You may not want to believe it. You may want to gloss over it. If you had an adverse childhood experience that still haunts you today, you may not recognize it as such. As you abominate the memory and often think about it, you may not realize how it radically affects your health, well-being, and future. “Maybe it will go away in time,” you say. You always try to remember that “time heals all wounds.” But do these silly platitudes and proverbs really help?

Studies on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) greatly reveal that time doesn’t heal all wounds. Time is not even our friend, because time cannot have a mind, a will, or an intelligence to accomplish such a status in our lives. So, let us not try to anesthetize ourselves with such a futile hope.   

From 1995 to 1997 one of the biggest childhood abuse studies took place under the guidance of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the California-based integrated managed care consortium known as Keiser Permanente. They wanted to know if abuse, neglect, and household challenges had any correlations with health and well-being problems later in life. 17,000 people participated and were given physical examinations and questionnaires on their medical history and childhood experiences. [2]   

“ACEs are very common,” according to American pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who is the founder and former chief executive officer of the Center for Youth Wellness. As she interprets the scientific data, 67% of the population studied in the 1990s had at least 1 ACE and 12.6% had 4 or more ACEs. [3]

An increasing number of ACEs in a person’s life increasingly portends bad health outcomes for that person, later. For anyone who had 4 or more childhood adversities, their probability for getting chronic obstructive pulmonary heart disease increased 2.5 times, the probability for getting hepatitis increased 2.5 times, the likelihood for depression grew 4.5 times, and the risk for suicide went up 12 times. 7 or more ACEs tripled the lifetime chances of lung cancer and ischemic heart disease. [3]   

If we agree with Dr. Nadine Harris that “childhood trauma affects how our DNA is read and transcribed” and “impacts the developing brains of children,” how can we snub the reality that this a “critical public health issue”? The 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health reported that the most widespread woes for children in the United States are divorce and separation of a parent or guardian and economic hardship. [4] Economic hardship is often defined as oppressive medical costs left unpaid because of meager health insurance, thereby leading to other problems such as debt and bankruptcy, and the patient’s quality of life deteriorates. For instance, if he/she must refuse prescription medication or doctor visits to save money. [5]  

45% of all American children have endured at least 1 calamity or unfair disadvantage, similar to what the 2011/2012 survey revealed. In Arkansas, the state with the highest prevalence of ACEs, 56% of children underwent at least 1 ACE. 3 or more ACEs have occurred in 1 out of every 7 children’s lives located in Arizona, Arkansas, Montana, New Mexico, and Ohio. [5]

ACEs may be found in all races or ethnicities, but ACEs do not scourge all races and ethnicities equally.  At least 1 ACE has struck 61% of black non-Hispanic children, 51% of Hispanic children, 40% of white non-Hispanic children, and 23% of Asian non-Hispanic children. [5]

If fierce fear, panic, alarm, and feebleness can be fomented by ACEs, how would these adversarial states manifest themselves? Alcohol and drugs can be the best anesthesia for those ailments. Don’t you think? No one wants to remain trapped in their own mental and emotional hell. Hence, alcoholism and drug abuse are self-destructive adversaries associated with ACEs. Hormones excessively secreted from endocrine glands because of protracted periods of toxic stress can bring on feebleness.

But why feebleness? Imagine the persistent uneasiness that must result from a dysfunctional metabolism and appetite, an abnormal heart rate, disrupted sleep cycles, unstable reproductive cycles and unstable sexual functions, moods and body temperature. These are the symptoms of hormonal disequilibration. [6]

To make things worse, ACEs relate to “lower educational attainment, unemployment, and poverty.” Why would that have a relationship with fear, panic, alarm, and feebleness? Well, if you constantly foresee rejection from employers, what are the chances that you will seek after work if you can’t handle rejection? If your impulse control and attention-span have been overwhelmed by drug abuse, you lose the self-confidence that you can maintain a steady job. If your body is often on high alert from the stress and anxiety, any bit of verbal tension or brusqueness can throw you off and make you say something to your boss or coworkers that gets you fired.

If you are so depressed that you can’t get out of bed to feed yourself, clothe yourself, and exercise your muscles, if you have lost interest and ambition for things, you can’t focus on schoolwork and studying. If you can’t focus on these things, you can’t get a college degree and therefore can’t get a high-paying job. So, then you have to face the intractable demon called poverty. [7]

Your self-efficacy crumbles under your daily woolgathering about your weakness and vulnerability. When you can’t imagine the accomplishment of your vocational goals, you can hardly imagine yourself taking care of your basic needs, and therefore your feelings of fear, panic, and alarm become your only friends. In a society that tells us only the strong survive, you feel you are one of the weak and trammeled, and so you settle for the conclusion that all effort and strain for self-betterment are not worthwhile. You might as well lie down and rest, hoping that maybe the world will shine its benevolent, merciful face on you and miraculously give you strength. But that never happens, so the depression and helplessness continue in a vicious cycle. [7]

ACEs can have a generational impact. They can take a cudgel to your children and grandchildren, especially when interventions and preventions are un-attempted. The genetics of a human can be deleteriously affected in the womb, caused by the mother’s toxic stress, thus setting up the child for difficulties later in life. One study revealed that women who had 4 or more ACEs increased their children’s chances, by 2 to 5 times, for poor physical and emotional health outcomes by 18 months of age.  [7]

Getting back to what Dr. Nadine Burke Harris said:

“We now understand better than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children. It affects areas like the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure and reward center of the brain that is implicated in substance dependence. It inhibits the prefrontal cortex, which is necessary for impulse control and executive function, a critical area for learning. And on MRI scans, we see measurable differences in the amygdala, the brain’s fear response center.” [8]

Studies on animals have aided us in understanding how childhood toxic stress is inimical to neurobiological growth and puts people on behavioral courses toward vulnerability to addiction. The mother’s quality of care for the child and the child’s early experiences can hurt or accommodate the development of the dopamine, oxytocin, and glucocorticoid systems.  The postnatal or postpartum period, which can last up to 6 months after birth, is the time when environmental influences can be amazingly impactful on these three neurobiological systems, due to their enduring such a momentous time of neurogenesis (the process by which new neurons form in the brain) and apoptosis (programmed sequence of cell death as part of cell growth and development). Early-life experiences influence the form and structure of neurons. They influence the adaptability of synapses, which are the junctions between the neurons, and their effective communication between each other. They affect our gene and receptor expression in these neurobiological systems in ways that extend to our neuroendocrine cells (hormone-releasing agents that receive signals from the nervous system) and neural circuit activation spots (synaptically interconnected populations of neurons), thereby having a causal role in whether we will have addiction and substance-seeking behaviors. [9]

A child’s early experiences are made disadvantageous and unpropitious by the mother’s choices and behaviors that jeopardize the child’s developmental trajectories. She must foster homeostasis or psychological equilibrium for the child. She must give guidance as to how to make coordinated responses to any situation or stimuli that would tend to disturb normal conditions and functioning. Such sensory input that is lacking or absent from the mother results in neglect, abuse, rejection, or failed homeostasis. [9]

Though later-life experiences may be traceable back to maladaptive developmental trajectories in postnatal life (first 6 months after childbirth), privations and abnormal stresses during childhood are not the sole determinants of specific later-life outcomes. Instead, whatever later outcomes and exposures the child has are results at the end of a cascade effect. [9] There are ways to divert yourself away from the ill-fated path.

How the Healing Can Begin

Begin by taking the ACEs questionnaire. Source citation #10 will send you to a site where those questionnaires are addressed. Your melancholy self may find it hard to admit that you must talk to a professional. But protecting your pride is much less important than the consequences that will take place because your un-attempted healing. We must normalize conversations about our past and how it is linked to our present and future, at least in the privacy with our healthcare practitioners. We need to disempower the secrecy and silence that has been working against us for so long. [10]

Begin writing about what happened in your past, even if you intend not to share that information with others and plan to burn the paper thereafter. Disclosing and confessing the truth, even if it is to just yourself, can help your mood and objective and subjective health experience convalescence. This was evidenced by the discoveries of psychologist James W. Pennebaker, PhD and his colleagues in the late 1980’s. [11]

You should practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) has been demonstrated by research to enhance the gray matter in the same parts impaired by adverse childhood experiences. [12] Research has also demonstrated that meditation “can alter neural, behavioral and biochemical processes” and might be helpful in treating “chronic inflammatory conditions.”

[13] Mindfulness meditation has been said to palliate anxiety and depression in PTSD-victims whose suffering came from childhood sexual abuse. MBSR classes and retreats are offered by meditation professionals, but you can also practice it anytime in your own house. Medications are available for assuaging the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for stress activation. Deep breathing, that is centering your thoughts on the breath entering and leaving your nostrils, the rising and falling of your chest, and the sensations throughout your body, is a great natural soothing remedy for an overactive sympathetic nervous system.  [14]

There are plenty of other options too.

But this last one really fascinates me: electroencephalographic neurofeedback. It has been demonstrated to help patients strengthen their neural connectivity and emotional resilience. By attaching electrodes to their scalp and watching their brain’s electrical activity in real-time on laptop screens, patients can see any underactive crucial brain regions represented by unpleasant images but then witness pleasant vibrant pictures when those brain regions are stimulated. The program helps patients to train themselves to promote and accelerate certain neural activity patterns needed for rebuilding better associations with satisfying images and sounds. [15]   

About the author: Matthew is interested in discussing social psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, sociology, human biology and anatomy, mental health disorders, philosophy, the psychology of religion, and the history of religion. Matthew loves his friends, his family, and his dog named Sampson. You can contact Matthew at

















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