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Week 2, Session 1: Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Hello everyone! We’re back today with Week 2 Session 1. 

If this is the first time you’re reading this, welcome! We’re so happy to have you here. However if you’re just starting out please do head back to the first session. We build on material throughout the weeks, and we don’t want you to miss anything!

The goals for this session are:

  • Learn about ACEs
  • Reflect on the importance of our social environment in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour

And of course, we do grounding exercises at the start of every session! Grounding exercises are designed as techniques to bring us to the “present” when we feel ourselves “dissociating” or as though we’re outside our own bodies. If, at any point, you feel uncomfortable during this session (or anywhere), you can use one of our grounding exercises to bring yourself back and away from hard emotions or physical sensations.

**Today’s grounding exercise will be…
**Think of an object and “draw” it in your mind, or in the air with your finger. Try drawing your home, a vehicle, or an animal. 

If you’ve done this before and want to try another version of it, once you’ve traced it in your mind - try colouring in with an imaginary paintbrush. How would the object look? Focus on the brushstrokes and let yourself “feel” the colours washing over the object.
Remember: we’ll be going through a different exercise each week, so we can find the ones that work best for us. If you don’t feel able to do one, feel free to step back.

Fun question: If you could easily become proficient in any type of dance, sport, or martial arts, what would you choose?

As social beings; we rely on others to survive and thrive at many points of our lives. This means that our life, the people around us, and the circumstances we are in have a deep impact in the way we digest the world.

Trauma doesn't come from our interior and it is not independent from the outside world. On the contrary, trauma comes from the interactions we have with that exterior. One metaphor we are a fan here of is of trauma as a wound -- we can see this wound as a hole, that we can fill; as a mouth, that we can feed, and make stronger by nurturing; and as a wound we can bandage; by not addressing the source of the problem, just covering up the symptoms, the way we would patch up blood. When we address these wounds, we want to make space to acknowledge the hurt, and manage it in ways that don’t cover it up, or feed the injury, but that address the wound holistically and look for ways we can allow it to heal.

While doing so, it is always important to remember as we work on trauma that our injuries - wounds, bruises, or the "bumps" we get by knocking through life's plethora of experiences, do not define us. We are not damaged. We are not "scarred". We are a whole person. A whole body, capable of movement, growth, joy, touch, and connection.

We need to acknowledge the wound to heal it, but it will never - and should never - define us in our entirety.

In looking in ways we have acquired wounds from our environment, we must acknowledge that it's part of our nature to be in touch with our environment and react to it. Sometimes those interactions can be too much for us to digest and process. This is normal. Most likely we all have had traumatic experiences in our past though they may differ in intensity and the impact on us. Most of the time, when someone talks about trauma, we are able to relate to it at some level though it’s important to never presume you understand someone’s pain as a way of minimising their experience. And this will become clear as we go further in this course.

We are predisposed to react to our environment from a very early age and that's why today we want to think about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). We’ll be calling them ACEs. 

The concept was originally born in the United States after a study showed a direct correlation between ACEs and future health complications such as heart conditions and depression. 

In a nutshell, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are stressful events that occur during childhood. Some of these include:

  • domestic violence
  • parental abandonment through separation or divorce
  • a parent with a mental health condition
  • being the victim of abuse (physical, sexual and/or emotional)
  • being the victim of neglect (physical and emotional)
  • a member of the household being in prison
  • growing up in a household in which there are adults experiencing alcohol and drug use problems.

ACEs are very common: it’s estimated that the majority of people have experienced at least one of these ACEs. However, even if you did not experience an ACE yourself, it may still help to learn about them. At some point in our lives, we will all come in contact with situations like this, or people that we know have suffered them at some point in their lives. It is important that we learn to recognise them and their impact so we can try and create safer environments for children in this world.

It’s also important to note that there are other traumatic experiences that we may have experienced in childhood in addition to these recognised ACEs, for example bullying. 

ACEs and health inequalities

Preventing ACEs should be seen within the wider context of tackling societal inequalities. While ACEs are found across the population, there is more risk of experiencing ACEs in areas of higher deprivation. This means that some children are at greater risk than others, and studies have shown that women and several racial/ethnic minority groups were at greater risk for having experienced 4 or more types of ACEs.

ACEs are preventable. Creating and sustaining safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for all children and families can prevent ACEs and help all children reach their full potential.

And even in the cases that they can’t be prevented, research has found that a relationship with one trusted adult during childhood can mitigate the impacts of ACEs on mental and physical wellbeing. Isn't this extraordinary? 

We can experience a lot of pain from an early age but also have incredible chances of recovering by having just one person that unconditionally cares for us.

But ACEs do NOT define us.

ACEs are common and should not be seen as someone’s destiny. The original study found that almost two thirds of participants experienced 1 or more ACE. For some people, ACEs did not have a big impact on the way they continued to live their lives as adults and for other people, these experiences are still having a strong effect.

ACEs can sometimes stay with us in what we call our “traumatic memory”. It may feel like we remember too little and too much at the same time. We might react to certain situations in the present in ways we cannot understand (that could be the result of our traumatic memory) but we can’t retrieve where this reaction is coming from. It is important to learn about ACEs as this can help us understand some of our behaviors and even allow us to integrate our traumatic memories into the narrative of our lives. We will be working on constructing our own narratives later in the course. 

And it makes sense that these ACEs could influence our daily lives to the present. When we are children, we are developing in so many ways: our bodies, our brains, our relationships, and more. Throughout this time we are also developing our sense of self: our personalities, how to communicate our sense of self through social interaction, how to maintain relationships with family and friends. Humans are social beings, and so we learn about ourselves as social creatures through interaction. It is understandable, then, that adverse experiences that affect the ways we interact with our care-givers and family - some of our most intimate early social experiences - could have an impact on the way that we think about ourselves and interact with our social environment. We’ll go a little more in depth into the ways that prolonged traumatic experiences can influence our sense of self when we discuss complex PTSD next week.

But for now, also remember that, in addition to ACEs, we can also have many protective factors that will allow us to process our early experiences. We will learn about protective factors when we talk about resilience but for now, we want you to know that there is much that can be done to offer hope and build resilience in children, young people and adults who have experienced adversity in early life. 

Knowing and naming the trauma you have been through, and being here to show up for yourself in this course, are excellent beginnings to this journey. We are not our traumas. To end with a quote from Jung -- we’re not psychoanalysis, we promise -- “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become”.

The homework for this week is… 

Two things! One of them is very short, don’t worry.

Firstly, here is a video about ACEs for you to watch and reflect on! It’s a short video on Adverse Childhood Experiences, only 5 minutes long, reviewing what we’ve done today.

In particular, after watching this video, think about what they say towards the end: speaking to a trusted adult is a very important protective factor against many of these kinds of negative effects of trauma (whether you’re a child, or an adult!). 

Is there someone you can speak to about your experiences? Have you found trust anywhere? 


Secondly, and related to the protective factors we’ve been talking about today, we’d also like you to draw a ‘circle of trust’. What do we mean by that? 

Draw a circle with the names of people you trusted as a child, and another circle for people you trust now, as an adult. If you want to get creative, you can draw it like a Venn Diagram, where the names of people who you trusted then and now go in the middle where the circles overlap.

As you’re drawing this circle, think: Are there people you trusted then, but don’t anymore? Or has your circle of trust expanded, to include new people, or people who you’ve come to trust over time?

This exercise may be useful to go back to, at times when things are more difficult: whoever you trust in that circle, might be someone you can lean on when it becomes difficult to cope. And this exercise in trust is one of our resilience skills - more on that in the weeks to come!

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