Does a Person’s Feelings About an Experience Matter More Than the Experience Itself? It Might.
PHILADELPHIA – Certain negative or traumatic experiences in a child’s life, known as adverse childhood experiences or ACEs, can have long-lasting impact on a person’s mental and physical well-being as an adult. ACEs are violence, sexual abuse, neglect, growing up in a family with mental health or substance use problems, and can also include experiences of divorce and poverty. Studies have shown that early childhood trauma can increase the likelihood of diseases as an adult, including heart disease, chronic pain, obesity, substance abuse, and depression, among others. However, it’s unclear whether a person’s perception of their experiences has any impact on risk of disease later in life.
New research from Jefferson’s College of Population Health explores whether this adulthood perception of traumatic events may predict health outcomes. The study, published in Community Mental Health Journal in February, 2020.
“To our knowledge, the studies of our collective research team are the first direct investigations into individuals’ perceptions of the magnitude or severity of adulthood impact of an ACE event,” says Marianna LaNoue, PhD, associate professor of population health and director of research, and first author of the study. “We hope our findings encourage the field to measure perceived impact in future studies, to better capture the complex relationship between ACEs and health outcomes.”
The researchers retroactively merged studies done between 2010 and 2016 which examined the relationship between ACEs and adult physical and mental health. From the 679 respondents, they looked at the ACE scores (the highest being 5, meaning a respondent experienced all five of the most common ACE events), the standard benchmark in these types of studies. However, in order to explore the perceived impact, the surveys in these studies also quantified the ACE impact magnitude, where respondents rated the impact on a scale of ‘none’ to ‘a lot’. They also had respondents rate their ACE event on a scale of ‘very negative’ to ‘very positive’. Previous research has shown that people are able to find some positives from their adversity, such as ‘becoming a stronger person’ or ‘being a better parent’.
“We found that how people felt about their experience was a significant predictor of health outcomes,” says Dr. LaNoue. “Specifically, we observed that respondents who report a more positive impact reported better health, with fewer mental health challenges and chronic conditions.”
In fact, the researchers found that 15% of people, regardless of how many events, or which specific events they experienced, reported that the impact was ‘mostly positive to very positive’. This finding points to the striking quality of resilience and is consistent with other research that indicates that positivity and positive emotions are protective of health in adulthood. While previous studies have examined resilience to stressful life events in adulthood, few of them examine adult’s perceived resilience to childhood events.
“I think these findings encourage us to remember that trauma and adversity don’t guarantee poor health outcomes in adulthood,” says Dr. LaNoue. “Instead, if people can be encouraged to find some positive impacts from their experiences, it may buffer negative health effects.”
By Karuna Meda
Article Reference: Marianna D. LaNoue, Amy T. Cunningham, Laura C. Kenny, Diane Abatemarco, Deborah Helitzer, “What Do Adults Think About Their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and Does It Matter?”, DOI: 10.1007/s10597-020-00580-0, Community Mental Health Journal, 2020