How Childhood Trauma leads to Depression, Anxiety and Alcoholism in Adults

Childhood trauma and emotional loss is the universal template for many of the ills experienced in adulthood, such as addiction, depression, and even a shorted lifespan.  This correlation has been overwhelmingly proven through The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, which has been one of the largest investigations ever conducted to assess the association between childhood maltreatment and later-life health and well-being. It reveals staggering proof of the health, social, and economic risks that result from childhood trauma. Those studied (1,700 participants) took the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Inventory to determine their level of traumatic exposure.

What Is Your ACE Inventory Score?

There are 10 types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE Study. Five are related to the child — physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five are related to other family members: an alcoholic parent, a mother who is the victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and parents who have gone through divorce or separation.

Up to your 18th birthday:

  1.  Did a parent or other adult in the household often: swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? Or …Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt? Yes  
No  If  Yes, enter 1 __
  2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often push, grab, slap, or throw something at you?Or …Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured? Yes
 No   If  Yes, enter 1 __
  3. Did a person at least 5 years older than you ever touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or …Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you? Yes 
 No   If  Yes, enter 1 __
  4. Did you often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or …Did your family not look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other? Yes 
No  If  Yes, enter 1 __
  5. Did you often feel that you did not have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you?  or…Were your parents sometimes too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it? Yes 
No  If Yes, enter 1 __
  6. Were your parents ever divorced or separated? Yes  
No  If Yes, enter 1 __
  7. Was your mother or stepmother often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? Was she very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or…Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife? Yes  No  If Yes, enter 1 __
  8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs? Yes 
No  If  Yes, enter 1 __
  9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a  household member attempt suicide? Yes 
No  If Yes, enter 1 __
  10. Did a household member go to prison? Yes 
No If  Yes, enter 1 __

Now add up your “Yes” answers: ___ This is your ACE Score

As the ACE score increases, so does the individual’s risk of disease, cognitive, social and emotional problems in adult life. With an ACE score of 4 or more, the adverse affects become devastatingly serious.

With a score of 4 or higher, adults are likely to suffer:

  • Hepatitis, 240 percent increase
  • Depression, 460 percent increase
  • Suicide, 1,220 percent increase
  • To be a smoker, 3 times more likely
  • 5 times more likely to be involved in Domestic Violence
  • 8 times more likely to suffer from Alcoholism
  • 8 times more likely to be pregnant as a teenager
  •  390 percent increase in chronic pulmonary lung disease

Why Does Childhood Trauma Continue to Affect Adults so Adversely?

Breakthroughs in neurobiology demonstrate that fear-based childhoods disrupt neurodevelopment, and can actually alter normal brain structure and function.

When children are overloaded with stress hormones, they’re in flight, fright or freeze mode. They have difficulty learning in school. They often cannot trust adults or develop healthy relationships with peers. To relieve their anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and/or inability to focus, traumatized adults anesthetize themselves with short-term biochemical solutions, such as nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana.  They also engage in risky activities to temporarily flee their anguish — high-risk sports, proliferation of sex partners, and work/over-achievement.

Using drugs, overeating or engaging in risky behavior leads to consequences as a direct result of this behavior. For example, smoking can lead to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or lung cancer. Overeating can lead to obesity and diabetes.

An elevated ACE score is so insidious because it is not just trauma defined as bad things happening to a person, such as witnessing domestic violence or the suffering of physical abuse that creates problems.  It is the emotional loss combined with traumatic acts that is so devastating. Children are equally hurt by things that should happen but do not as they are by things that should not happen but do. If the parents are not emotionally available, many will not define that as trauma, but it will be for the child. If a mother has postpartum depression, for example, that’s not defined as trauma but it can lead to emotional neglect and that interferes with child brain development.

The affects of childhood trauma are not easy to overcome, but they can be worked through.  Such individuals can have corrective experiences through the therapeutic process that help mitigate the negative effects of childhood abuse, learning to work through guilt, anger, shame, and self-destructive behaviors.

If you are suffering from depression or childhood trauma or are in need of couples counseling or marital counseling in Irvine, Newport Beach, or Orange County, please call me, Jennifer De Francisco, LCSW at (949) 251-8797.


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