childhood swing

A landmark longitudinal study done in San Diego by Drs. Vincent Felitti and Dr. Robert Anda and colleagues, links adverse childhood experiences (ACES) with increased risk for heart disease, addiction, cancer and auto-immune diseases, to name a few.

The book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity came across my radar twice in the last two weeks. Once when talking with a high school English teacher and once on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert podcast. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris wrote the book. She is a pediatrician and California’s first surgeon general.

The Deepest Well expands on the definitions of the adverse experiences and results of the Felitti/Anda study and offers ways to buffer or soften the impact of such unfavorable childhood events.

What are the adverse childhood experiences? 

Dr. Burke Harris summarizes the ten ACES used in the study as:

  1. Emotional abuse (recurrent)
  2. Physical abuse (recurrent)
  3. Sexual abuse (contact)
  4. Physical neglect
  5. Emotional neglect
  6. Substance abuse in the household (e.g., living with an alcoholic or a person with a substance abuse problem)
  7. Mental illness in the household (e.g., living with someone who suffered from depression or mental illness or who attempted suicide)
  8. Mother or stepmother treated violently
  9. Divorce or parental separation
  10. Criminal behavior in household (e.g. a household member incarcerated)

Besides explaining the impact adverse conditions have on our health, The Deepest Well also offers ways to help minimize the damage these adverse conditions cause.

What offers protection from developing long-term health problems?

Dr. Burke Harris lists six things to do to reduce the effects of ACES. We have talked about most of these in some shape or form on this blog.woman meditating

Six Things:

  1. Exercise
  2. Nutrition
  3. Nurturing Relationships
  4. Mental Health/Therapy/Coaching
  5. Mindfulness
  6. Sleep

I vehemently believe in the power of all of these. I advise my coaching clients to make all of the above priorities in their lives. I advocate for the practice of the above, before turning to medication.

High sensitivity and adversity

One thing I want to point out for my readers, is that it has been proven that highly sensitive people/children have a tendency to react more strongly or be more impacted by adverse conditions. Our nervous systems are set at a higher frequency. We notice and feel negative emotions and behavior more quickly and deeply than less sensitized individuals. The good news is we also thrive and succeed at higher levels when conditions are positive. This data comes from Dr. Elaine Aron of The Highly Sensitive Person books. Knowing and practicing the six buffers can help us improver our environment.

The majority of people experience some childhood adversity

Another important point I want to convey is that 2/3 of the population of the study had at least one ACE. Dr. Burke Harris is working diligently to have screening for ACES be a mandatory part of all childhood pediatric checkups. Of course, parents are the ones filling out the forms. To increase the likelihood of honest responses on the forms, parents are asked to simply state the number of ACEs their children have been exposed to versus listing exact experiences. For example, looking at the list I can say I grew up with 2-3 of the ACEs in my household(s). Knowing we have ACES in our history does not mean we are doomed or have a lifetime excuse for poor health or risky behavior (another proven effect of childhood adversity.

Just as knowing our attachment style (avoidant, anxious/ambivalent, secure) allows us to understand and mitigate the challenges in our relationships, knowing our ACES allows us to understand and mitigate the effects on our health.


How many ACES did you experience? How many have your children experienced? What buffers protect(ed) you? Your children? 

Photo by Manuel Inglez on Unsplash

Photo by madison lavern on Unsplash

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