Toxic Stress and the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study

Toxic Stress and the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study

So let’s say you’re on an African Safari.
You can hear the unique sounds of the open lands, you can see giraffes off in the
distance, and you can feel the warm breeze on your face. And then you turn
around, and you see this: What do you do? [children ooing] Chances are if you see a lion that’s
about to eat you, your body is going to respond in one of two ways: fight or flee. Essentially your brain’s
automatic response to threat kicks in and you feel a rush of adrenaline and
you prepare to either fight for your life, or run like heck the other direction. And
there’s very little thought involved in this immediate response and that’s
normal. It’s a biological system that’s adapted over time to help humans survive
mortal peril. But what happens if that lion shows up at home every night? What
if its lurking around every corner of your neighborhood? What if suddenly
nowhere feels safe? What happens to your body then? So these
types of persistent chronic and intense experiences of threat result in what
scientists call toxic stress. As the name implies, these long lasting and repeated
experiences of stress can result in toxic damage to the brain and the body.
And over the past few decades there’s been extensive research done on the
effects of these toxic stress experiences for the brain and body. So
one pretty well-known series of studies done on this topic are the adverse
childhood experiences or ACEs studies. In these studies, researchers asked over
17,000 adults about the types of adverse and stressful experiences they had had
in their childhoods. And these experiences included things like abuse, neglect,
mental illness, or substance use. So over two-thirds of study participants
reported at least one adverse childhood experience, and one in five participants
reported three or more adverse experiences. Then researchers correlated
the number of adverse childhood experiences people reported to the
number of health problems later in life including things like alcoholism, mental
illness, and heart disease. And here’s the kicker. The more adverse childhood
experiences people reported, the more severe and numerous their health
problems were later in life. Now here is where I give the caveat that
this study is correlational in nature and thus we can’t really determine if
and how these particular adverse experiences cause these later health
outcomes. But I will say that this is one in a long series of studies that have found
various physical and mental health problems related to early experiences of
chronic stress. So some research with rats has found that sustained exposure to
highly stressful situations can result in memory of learning impairments, as
well as suppressed immune system functioning. And genetic research has
found that exposure to chronic stress can actually change the wave your genes
are expressed across your lifetime. And some research suggests that if pregnant
women experienced extreme stress during their pregnancy that it can actually
alter how their babies’ stress regulation system develops. So the evidence is
pretty clear that exposure to chronic and toxic stress early in life and
really across the lifespan can be very detrimental to health and well-being but
it’s important to note that not all children or people exposed to toxic
stress will necessarily have health issues. So how do we decrease the stress
that’s experienced by children? So obviously it’s impossible to remove all
experiences of stress from children’s lives, and as I’ve discussed previously
it’s actually beneficial for us to experience some stress. But I have a lot
of ideas about how we as a society can reduce experiences of toxic stress for
children and I’m sure I’ll get into them in future videos. But I’ll start with
something that’s probably the most straightforward: relationships. It all
starts and ends with relationships. Research has found that when children can
rely on caring and responsive adults around them that it lessens their
biological response to stress. Children are able to cope with stress more
effectively when caring adults are present who can help teach them how to
cope with those experiences. If young people can have one, just one caring
adult who they can trust and rely on, than their experiences of stress can go
from being toxic to being tolerable. How do we support parents and teachers and
professionals to build those relationships with kids? Yeah that’s a topic for a whole series
of videos so stay tuned for that. But in the meantime I’ve been collecting
stories from a lot of you about the people in your lives to make a positive
difference and who you rely on when you feel hopeless. I’ve gotten some great
responses to these questions, so many thanks to those of you who have already
responded. If you haven’t you want to, take a crack at these two questions
and submit them via Tumblr or Twitter with the hashtag #BRGstory and I’ll start
sharing some of these and some future videos. I’ve also got a playlist that I
put together some great videos that talk about the nitty-gritty of the biology of
stress and what it does to our brains and bodies, so be sure to check that out.
And remember to click like if you liked it and subscribe if you want to see more,
and as always thanks for watching!


  1. Loved the graphics. And I think I've mentioned this before, but stress to me is so rare. And I hear my parents talk about stressing out often. So for me it was not correlative to what I've seen. But then again I am probably a major outlier to this.

  2. This is a great video on the affects of stress and the reasons to want to try to avoid it as much as possible!
    Its also a good explanation for why a lot of people end up developing c-ptsd – because they dont have any adults they can truly rely on as they're growing up – thank you so much for making this!

    Also, just a thought, but maybe put a spotlight annotation over your subscribe button at the end of your videos and you might start getting more subscriptions? 🙂

    P.S. OMG I just noticed you have a pizzamas mug! Thats awesome!!! XD lol

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