What To Do To Overcome An Adverse Childhood Experience

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Trauma from an adverse childhood experience can stay with a person for the rest of their life, and if left untreated, it can have physical and mental consequences. The leading causes of adverse childhood experiences can include the divorce of your parents, witnessing mistreatment between parents, domestic violence or childhood abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and living with family members who misuse substances. 

It can be possible to overcome adverse childhood experiences by taking the ACEs questionnaire, finding fulfillment in life, volunteering in your community, and seeking professional help. An easy way to receive professional support may be to join an online therapy platform where you can connect with a licensed therapist.

This article explores some of the risk factors and potential negative health effects caused by these experiences, as well as recommendations for things like online therapy to help with the impact of ACEs. 


What are adverse childhood experiences?

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can manifest in many different forms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and their ACE study, these past issues can have a significant impact on adulthood. They can lead to various physical and mental health concerns. 

According to the ACE study, the higher someone scores on the ACEs questionnaire, the more likely they may be to develop depressive and anxiety disorders.

Some examples of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are listed below:

  • Enduring the separation or divorce of parents

  • Living with a family who misuses drugs or alcohol

  • Having a family with severe mental illness

  • Seeing a family incarcerated 

  • Witnessing a family being abused by another

  • Experiencing physical, mental, emotional, or sexual abuse

If you or a loved one is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7.

Childhood maltreatment may be much more common than people often think, with over 60% of the CDC study participants generally reporting having at least one ACE. 

Additionally, around one in six people may have had more than four ACEs.

Although ACEs can happen to anyone from any background, studies suggest that women, minority groups, and those who identify as being part of the LBGTQIA+ community may be more likely to have experienced family dysfunction.

What mental health challenges can ACEs cause?

In addition to a potentially increased risk of developing mental health issues like depression and anxiety, as well as chronic physical health issues like headaches, obesity, heart disease, and cancer, the stress response of ACEs may also increase the risk of suicide* and behaviors such as the following:

  • Hypersexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, and unwanted pregnancies

  • An inability to form meaningful relationships with others

  • Substance use disorders and addiction

  • Difficulties with finances and maintaining employment

  • Aggression, violence, and criminal activity

It can be crucial to note that ACEs may not always result in these effects, however.

In theory, positive parenting skills may prevent adverse childhood experiences. When children are raised in supportive and caring homes, and can form nurturing relationships with their family, they may develop healthy social and emotional connections to the world.

Mentor and after-school programs, support for lower-income households, and substance misuse and safe sex education can also lower the prevalence of ACEs.

Yet, millions of people around the world may still experience ACEs and live with the challenges created by them throughout their childhoods and potentially into adulthood. 

Still, there can be ways to combat and recover from ACEs, and we will discuss them further below.

What physical health challenges can ACEs cause?

Adverse childhood experiences can significantly impact long-term physical health, potentially leading to a range of challenges, such as: 

  • Increased risk of chronic diseases (e.g., cardiovascular disease, diabetes)

  • Compromised immune function

  • Increased likelihood of substance abuse

  • Obesity

  • Chronic pain 

  • Shortened lifespan

Additionally, ACEs may be linked to higher rates of risky behaviors such as smoking, physical inactivity, and unhealthy dietary choices, which may exacerbate their negative effects on physical health. This presents the potential for far-reaching consequences on family health. 

Getty/MoMo Productions

How to address adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

While challenges that can arise from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can be chronic, they don’t have to be lifelong. Please know that it may never be too late to get help through therapy and other treatment methods.

Take the ACEs questionnaire

The ACEs questionnaire is a very brief, 10-question survey that generally covers various forms of trauma that you may have experienced prior to turning 18 years old. Although other forms of trauma, such as bullying and racism, can be prevalent, this study mainly focuses on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that occur at home.

Aside from providing useful information to the CDC, the survey can offer insight into these experiences in order to create effective intervention strategies. The survey can also allow us to become more aware of our past by revisiting it and reflecting on moments that we may have suppressed. While bringing these memories to the surface may be difficult, it’s often a necessary step in recovery.

Even if you are already in treatment with a healthcare professional or therapist, the information obtained from this survey can help your provider better understand the depth of your trauma, and they may be better able to serve you.

Find fulfillment

Many people who have had adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) may have difficulties finding meaning in their lives, or they may not have ways to express themselves and cope with their emotions productively. There may be many different activities that can provide an outlet for challenging emotions, such as journaling, physical activity, yoga, meditation, and hobbies.

You can also consider volunteering in your community to help combat ACEs by being a mentor to children who may be living with similar experiences to you. Helping younger generations seek help for their ACEs can safeguard them from many potential years of distress. Offering help to others can also be very fulfilling.

Although it may seem like no one else has gone through the same type of trauma as you have, and while your experience can be completely unique to you, it may help to view fighting ACEs as a community concern. Preventing this public health issue frequently requires the support of a community, not just an individual. Being a part of that can help you overcome your ACEs by providing you with a strong purpose. It may also help you provide a better experience for your own children if you’re able to identify what situations may cause ACEs.

Seek professional support

For all conditions, no matter if they are physical or mental, getting help from a professional can be ideal for healing and making progress. There is a chance that you may have already been seeing a doctor, psychiatrist, therapist, or another professional to treat the symptoms you may be experiencing. Developmental and behavioral pediatrics specialists possess extensive expertise that may help provide insight into a child’s brain development following the experience of child abuse or other ACEs. 

If you have been troubled by ACEs in the past but haven’t sought out help yet, it’s highly recommended that you do so. One of the most effective ways to get help and overcome ACEs can be to find a counselor or therapist, especially one who has experience in assisting people with adverse childhood experiences.

A mental health professional can be useful in helping you talk about these adverse experiences in an open and non-judgmental space so that you can release them. They can also teach you helpful coping strategies and enable you to begin a journey toward healing.

Getty/SDI Productions

How online therapy can help with overcoming ACEs

In some cases, ACEs can contribute to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. One study investigated the efficacy of online therapy for the treatment of PTSD and found that there were “significant reductions of PTSD symptoms […] compared to the control group. There were also effects on depression symptoms, anxiety symptoms, and quality of life.”

Discussing traumatic events from your childhood and any negative effects you may be experiencing can often be beneficial. Your local Department of Health and Human Services may be able to connect you with support groups to help address the psychosocial aspects of experiences ACEs. 

At BetterHelp, an online therapy platform, you may connect with a licensed mental health professional specializing in the concerns you’re experiencing within as little as 48 hours. In addition, you may speak to your therapist through video chat, phone call, or online chat, and you may also send them messages between sessions, which they will typically respond to as soon as they can. These options can help you feel more comfortable speaking about vulnerable topics like adverse childhood experiences.


Although adverse childhood experiences can be relatively common, they can contribute to a variety of negative impacts on physical and mental health. You may overcome ACEs by finding fulfillment through healthy relationships and hobbies, volunteering in your community, taking the ACEs questionnaire to gain insight into your experiences, and seeking professional support through therapy. You can connect with a licensed mental health professional online or in your local area.
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