August 8, 2022

Adverse Childhood Experiences and Substance Abuse

Read time: 7 minutes

It is undeniable that you are the person you are today because of your childhood. The way you were brought up and the environment that surrounded you influenced both small things, like our preferences for certain music or flavors of ice cream, and much bigger things, like your personality and how you function in relationships.

What Are ACEs?

When things go well in childhood, it is a contributing factor to your success in different facets of your life. On the other hand, when childhood is tumultuous, it can pose barriers later in life. The number of adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs) that you experience can greatly influence your life far into the future. 

Adverse childhood experiences are certain events or situations during childhood that cause substantial stress and create an unhealthy environment for growth. These experiences include things that happened to you as well as things you may have witnessed. Experiencing physical or emotional neglect and abuse or being the victim of sexual abuse is one example, while witnessing domestic violence is another example. Certain circumstances in the home and the family can also be considered ACEs, such as family mental illness, substance abuse, and incarceration. 

The impact of these adverse childhood experiences is measured with the ACEs score, which is the total number of these negative experiences you have been exposed to before the age of 18. The higher this score, the more at risk you are for complications in the future. 

Adverse childhood experiences are not a small problem in the United States. According to a survey conducted by the CDC, 61% of American adults have an ACEs score of at least 1, and 16% report a score of at least 4. This means that over half of U.S. adults are at elevated risk for negative outcomes long beyond childhood.

The Risk of ACEs

When you are chronically exposed to adverse childhood experiences without the proper mitigating factors like positive social supports, over time you may develop toxic stress. You have probably heard of the fight-or-flight response, where stress brings on the body’s reflex to seek safety. This response occurs in the nervous system because of a hormone called cortisol. When you are experiencing toxic stress, your body’s fight-or-flight is almost constantly triggered, and cortisol is consistently raising alarm bells through heightened heart rate and blood pressure.

This takes a toll on the body, and it explains why high ACEs scores are correlated with health risks. These health risks include obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and asthma. In addition to physical health risks, ACEs can influence the likelihood of the development of mental health issues, suicidal behavior, and substance abuse. In addition, toxic stress can increase risky behaviors like unprotected sex, while limiting positive social outcomes. High ACEs scores are correlated with low socioeconomic status, unemployment, and not completing high school.

Substance Abuse and ACEs

Just as being exposed to substance use early in life is an adverse childhood experience, it also puts you at risk of going on to develop substance use disorder in the future. Just having substance use occur in the house doubles the chances of a child going on to develop substance use disorder. Even smoking tobacco can factor into this, though to a lesser extent.

According to a 2011 article in the journal Addictive Behaviors, if you experienced ACEs in childhood, you are more likely to begin using substances at an earlier age than those without these adverse experiences. If you have an ACEs score of 5 or greater, you have an increased likelihood of developing substance use disorder and using illicit drugs by 7 to 10 times. The development of substance abuse as a result of ACEs appears to be tied to the greater risk of other mental illnesses, and these conditions exist comorbidly.

What Now?

Learning about adverse childhood experiences can provide helpful context if you are currently struggling with substance use disorder. For example, it may make sense why you picked up drinking when you were exposed to it frequently as a kid. There may be events that happened in your childhood that cause you stress to this today. When combined with other stressors in your adult life, you might feel that using drugs is the best way to alleviate some of the pain.

Even with this knowledge, you may be wondering: What now? If you struggle with substance abuse and believe you have gone through some adverse childhood experiences, it can be helpful to seek resources such as therapy to work through not only your drug or alcohol use, but also the events that occurred when you were young and experienced toxic stress. 

Since ACEs often involve hardships in the family and can transcend generations, attending family therapy or finding a program that utilizes a family recovery model can be helpful in reestablishing healthy boundaries and repairing dynamics that have gone awry.

Just because you have lived through painful and stressful events does not mean that your future is set in stone. It is helpful to know the risk and how your substance abuse fits into it, but that information is not a death sentence. Rather, it is a tool for reclaiming your future and addressing the problem directly. Addressing adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress now not only helps you to live a healthier and more fulfilling life, but it also can stop the generational cycle.

If you are struggling with substance use disorder while grappling with the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and toxic stress, it can feel hard to make a change. When certain patterns have been reinforced for you since you were young, there might not appear to be other options. Fortunately, help is available. Family-Centered Services offers a wide array of services to help you and your family recover from the devastating effects of substance abuse, while maintaining awareness of the family system and its dynamics. We provide individual and family therapy, a Family Recovery Program, comprehensive case management, and sober accountability to support your progress in treatment. We understand it takes a strong team to recover from substance abuse, and our licensed clinicians will partner with your family to curate an individualized plan. Your past is not your future. Get started by calling us at (509) 991-5822.