In a recent piece on the television show 60 Minutes, Oprah Winfrey discussed childhood trauma — shining a public spotlight on the lasting effects of abuse and adversity in childhood. Oprah herself is a survivor of childhood abuse.
Adverse childhood experiences, commonly called ACEs, include witnessing verbal or physical conflict between parents and having a parent with a mental illness or substance-abuse issue. They also include parent separation, divorce and incarceration and the experience of neglect or abuse (sexual, physical or emotional) as a child.
ACEs are common. Approximately 60 per cent of the general population report experiencing at least one before the age of 18. More than eight per cent of the population report experiencing four or more ACEs.
Research has consistently found that the more adverse childhood experiences a person has, the greater their risk for later health problems.
Our research group investigates how ACEs affect women’s physical and psychological health in pregnancy. We study how adversities are “inherited” or passed from parent to child, as well as how the risks of ACEs in pregnant women can be reduced.
Our latest finding suggests that when mothers who have experienced ACEs feel supported by the people around them, their risk of having pregnancy complications is substantially reduced. In essence, feeling supported by friends and family can counteract the negative effects of having ACEs.
From liver disease to early death
For example, an individual who has experienced four or more ACEs is four times more likely to experience a mental health problem than someone who has not.
Toxic stress and the body
When children are exposed to abuse and adversity, they experience heightened levels of stress without a strong support system to help them through these difficult experiences. This is often referred to as “toxic stress.”
This stress is different from the tolerable types of stress that can help with development — such as learning to make new friends, going to a new school or taking a test.
Experiencing high levels of toxic stress during abusive or traumatic experiences can alter how our brain and body process future experiences and stressful events. Toxic stress impacts how we think and learn.
How does this happen? Toxic stress can cause excessive “wear and tear” on the body. It primes our system to be hyper-sensitive to stressors. This wear and tear builds up over time and can lead to both physical and mental health problems throughout our life.
When adults become parents, the effects that ACEs have had on their own body, mind and behaviour can influence how they experience their pregnancy and their pregnancy health. It can affect how they are able to interact with, and care for, their children.
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