Toxic Stress In Childhood Impacts Physical, Mental Well-Being Throughout Life


Stress is a part of everyday life, but “toxic” or traumatic stress is known to have a significant effect on our physical and emotional health. Toxic stress in early childhood can greatly impact brain development and social and emotional wellness.

The human brain is always at work; it is responsive to the “experiences” we have in life. Childhood memories of adverse experiences are stored in our bodies and minds. These experiences are hard-wired into our biology at the gene level and can affect behavior, mood, physical health and more for many years.

There are particularly sensitive periods in childhood that affect the developing brain. By being informed about and paying attention to these critical time periods, we create an opportunity to understand the effects that toxic stress may have on an individual long into adulthood, find ways to interrupt negative outcomes and build resilience in youth.

Stunning research, begun by Drs. Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti, and supported by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1991, demonstrates the correlation between toxic stress in children and the potential negative, lasting impact on their physical, mental and behavioral well-being. This body of work, the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or “ACEs,” Study is believed by many to have uncovered the leading cause of health and social problems in the United States.

There are 10 categories of ACEs, which can be grouped into three areas:

•Household Dysfunction: substance abuse, parental separation or divorce, mental illness, battered mothers and criminal behavior

•Neglect: emotional and physical

•Abuse: emotional, physical and sexual

ACEs are common, commonly “interrelated” and sometimes unintentionally passed on to the next generation. Most people will report experiencing at least one ACE in their childhood. Where one ACE exists, there is an 87 percent chance that at least one of the other nine ACEs also exists. The higher the ACE score— a reflection of the number of the 10 ACE categories someone has been exposed to— the more likely someone is to have health and social problems including: alcoholism/drug abuse, depression/anxiety and other mental health problems, heart disease, liver disease, obesity/diabetes, sexual behavior issues, anger/violence, poor adjustment in the workplace, smoking, etc.

The higher the ACE score, the more likely people are to have multiple health and social problems and the higher the odds of their children having high ACE scores. One specific example of the impact ACEs is: people with an ACE score of four are nearly 20 times more likely to commit suicide than people with an ACE score of 0.

Understanding the cause and effect of ACEs presents a great opportunity to begin to interrupt negative physical and mental health outcomes and the transmission through generations of the problems associated with ACEs. Even though ACEs are common, many helping institutions have been unaware of the prevalence or impact of trauma in childhood and thus have not offered resources or strategies to completely address the needs of people who have experienced ACEs. In some cases, they have attempted to deal with these issues in ways that may have even been unintentionally harmful or re-traumatizing.

Moving forward, we must begin to respond more sensitively, knowing that certain behaviors may not be by choice, but rather the result of systemic trauma experience, absorbed over time. We must tell everyone that childhood experiences influence well-being throughout life. And, we must begin to focus heavily on building supportive strategies to enable resilience in people by grounding them in supportive families and communities, creating positive narratives and feelings of value and self-worth, and instilling a sense of belonging in relationships with caring and competent people.

The University of Maryland Medical System and University of Maryland, Baltimore are hosting a daylong community conversation, “Not All Wounds Are Visible— Let’s Talk About How Adverse Childhood Experiences Impact Who We Are” on June 19, 2019 to address these issues and examine healing strategies. For more information, visit: conversations.