Why are initiating and maintaining healthy relationships such a challenge?
In addition to the public health campaigns aimed at reducing the stigma associated with mental illnesses, as well coping with normal challenges in life, there is much more awareness about how trauma from our childhoods follows us into adulthood. While we all instinctively know that a traumatic childhood can take a long time to “get over”, did you know its been scientifically proven that said crappy childhood actually increases your overall risk for a whole host of chronic physical and mental illnesses? Yikes!
The groundbreaking ACE Study (adverse childhood experiences) studied over 17,000 people about their childhood experiences of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction ( and more than 50 scientific articles have been published and more than 100 conference and workshop presentations have followed). Researchers in the ACE study assigned participants an ‘ACE score’ based on the various types of household dysfunction they encountered before the age of 18; basically, the higher your score, the higher your risk of some of the following health conditions:
- Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Fetal death
- Health-related quality of life
- Illicit drug use
- Ischemic heart disease (IHD)
- Liver disease
- Risk for intimate partner violence
- Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
- Suicide attempts
- Unintended pregnancies
- Early initiation of smoking
- Early initiation of sexual activity
- Adolescent pregnancy
Well now that's a bit depressing isn't it?
What hasn’t been studied as much, is how do people with really high ACE scores overcome this (inevitable?) legacy?
There are protective factors we intuitively understand, such as that teacher that went the extra mile, that adult that took an interest, that surrogate ‘parent’ who stepped up when yours where nowhere to be found. There is also the ability to see your family of origin for who they really are – imperfect human beings, who despite their terrible choices and traits, might have had a few redeeming qualities (or maybe not). Potentially similar traits that you - the more highly evolved lifeform - have been able to make some better choices with. Other studies have found that there are in fact people who do really well in life, despite having experienced some serious trauma as kids. Developing resiliency and working as hard as you possibly can to cultivate and sustain close relationships with the people around you are two things you can do to protect yourself.
While it might be fairly obvious to you that your childhood sucked, hopefully this data provides you with some reassurance that it’s perfectly reasonable that as a result, there are some things you struggle with, either from time to time, or chronically. In other words, it’s normal. You can stop feeling like there is something wrong with you, and join the rest of your community in our collective struggle to get our s**t together.
Curious? You can check your own ACE score here. A while lotta stuff might start to make sense. Sometimes it really helps knowing that it isn’t just you. Most of these Top Ten lists all really say some version of the same thing over and over: eat well, get good sleep, participate in your community, practice mindfulness, work on your relationships, practice self-care and live in the moment. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, it’s worth mentioning that it isn’t uncommon for people who had escaped traumatic or abusive homes to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder for an unspecified amount of time. You can seek some help to support you in your healing process. It can take a village and a lifetime (and that’s okay).
- Felitti VJ, Anda RF, Nordenberg D, Williamson DF, Spitz AM, Edwards V, Koss MP, Marks JS. Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: the adverse childhood experiences (ACE) study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 1998;14:245–258.