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A recent 10-year scientific study by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established a strong link between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and a higher risk of cancer, obesity, heart disease, insomnia, and depression. Exposure to these stressors also greatly increases the likelihood of alcoholism, suicide, homelessness, prison time, and early death. Dr. Nadine Harris, a pediatrician and pioneer in combating ACEs, will speak on the critical but little-known issue next week at UCSB.

The medical profession has long known that many ailments have a psychosomatic component — a link between mind and body. But new research shows that these experiences — including physical and emotional abuse, neglect, and violence; drugs; or mental illness in the household — often trigger hormones that wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at grave risk of contracting diseases and succumbing to dysfunctional behavior. No segment of society is immune; 67 percent of the population has gone through one or more ACEs.

Experiencing four or more ACEs makes a child 32 times more likely to have learning problems and be 12 times more at risk of suicide. Exposure to three of them shortens one’s life expectancy, on average, by 12 years. Stress produces a rush of cortisone and adrenaline, which allows us to better cope with danger. But repeated exposure can have the opposite effect and be damaging. Children are especially sensitive to repeated activation.

The counter to toxic stress, Harris has explained, is fostering resilience — the ability to adapt and thrive through tough times. Resilience is not an innate characteristic but rather a practiced skill, and parents, educators, law enforcement, and health professionals should learn the tools to recognize and respond to ACEs, Harris argues. When children act out, we shouldn’t ask, “What’s wrong with you?” but rather, “What happened to you?”

Dr. Nadine Harris will speak Monday, April 16, at 7:30 p.m. in UCSB’s Campbell Hall. The event is free and hosted by UCSB Arts & Lectures.


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