Mental health wounds that occur during childhood are called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs refer to a range of negative situations a child may face or witness while growing up, including emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; living in a household where domestic violence occurs; or parental separation and divorce. Roughly two-thirds of American adults have survived adverse childhood experiences.
ACEs, if left unhealed, can lead to a vast array of psychological and medical conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, clinical depression, panic disorder, anxiety, promiscuity, and substance abuse. Long-term chronic and unrelieved stress from unhealed experiences can overstimulate the brain and body, weaken the immune system, and pose an increased risk for the development of cancers and autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus.
Let’s take a look at some advice from Holocaust survivor and practicing psychologist Dr. Edith Eva Eger about surviving ACEs and then some strategies for healing your traumatic childhood experiences.
Advice on Dealing With and Healing Childhood Trauma
Dr. Edith Eva Eger was sent to Auschwitz, a Nazi concentration camp, at the tender age of 16. A gymnast and ballerina, she was forced to dance for Dr. Josef Mengele, the “angel of death”. She survived not only the Nazi death camps, the horror of watching her mother and countless others being marched to a gas chamber, but also a troubled childhood. In her inspiring autobiography, The Choice – Embrace the Impossible, recounts her childhood adversities and offers some realizations about surviving ACEs, even long after the danger was over.
- Suffering is not all bad. Along with intense pain, trauma can reveal inner strengths and the confidence that one can survive anything.
- Determine that life will be good again. Trauma survivors might have no control over what happened to them, but they can choose the life they will experience after the trauma. We can choose hope and love, which “comes out as the answer in the end “ (p. 173). We can relish the second chance to have a sense of discovery, to see nature’s beauty, and to take joy in children’s eyes. When victimized, we are responsible to choose whether we’ll become victims or those who thrive.
- Express your story. It is not healthy to bottle up painful emotions. At one point, Edith mused, “What if telling my story could lighten its grip instead of tightening it?” (p. 156). Safe and appropriate ways to tell our story, such as journal writing, in which one expresses the facts, thoughts, and emotion, has been found to be very helpful for most survivors.
- Take a fresh look at what you’ve run from. Thirty-five years after liberation from prison and still suffering PTSD symptoms, Edith accepted an invitation to return to Germany to speak. With trepidation, she determined to put her past to rest so as not to pass on her distress to her children. Standing where Hitler and his supporters had once stood, she released old sorrow and the past she wished she’d had. She forgave Hitler—and herself for not saving her mother. Returning to Auschwitz, she pieced together memory fragments and settled the old memories. Along the way, she saw that nature had restored places linked to old haunting memories.
- Let nothing or no one cause you to doubt your inherent worth. Edith’s losses and mistreatment led her to believe that she didn’t deserve to survive. At one point she was depressed and suicidal. Eventually she realized, “Only I can do what I can do [in] the way I can do it” (p. 173).
Strategies for Healing Adverse Childhood Experiences
Living your life to the fullest by healing the ACEs in your life takes active engagement in strategies to grow and maintain resilience.
- Processing through dialog: Putting your feelings into words can help you distance yourself from an abusive past. Self-reflection through writing letters, journaling, and meditation help tremendously. So does having external dialogs with mental health professionals and friends, sharing experiences and feelings.
- Make strategic life choices: Be proactive in finding things that enhance your well-being and disengage from things that are of not benefit to you. These can include choosing a romantic partner, being a young homeowner, obtaining an education, or securing a job.
- Employ your personal resources: Build your capacity to feel joy even in the most difficult of times. See yourself as someone who has considerable inner strength after surviving you ACE.
- Surround yourself with valuable people: Build supportive relationships, both intimate and professional. Also, be responsible for taking care of others and provide meaning in their lives.
- Reach acceptance of yourself: Accept your strengths and weaknesses and come to believe that you are good enough, no matter what. Find understanding or explanations for why you suffered your ACE and why the key players acted the way they did. Finally, forgive those responsible for your ACE and let yourself let go of associations holding you back from living a full and fulfilling life.
It is possible to heal the adverse childhood experiences in your life. It is a challenging and ongoing process, but you can not only just survive, but thrive. Helen Keller, who overcame numerous challenges from her childhood, once remarked, “Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”