Stress and ACES

Back to ACE homepage


ACEs have an effect on the developing brain.


Stress in reasonable doses promotes growth and brain development throughout childhood. Stress is a normal part of daily life and learning how to manage stress and regulate stress responses is critical to a child’s development. However, acute or prolonged stress can become toxic to the developing brain and body. ACEs can cause toxic stress.

Children’s stress response systems are immature at birth and therefore vulnerable to maltreatment and neglect. If the adults in a child’s life are not able to buffer the stress or are themselves the source of the stress, the child may begin to experience the world as dangerous and uncertain. In the face of danger, the body reacts by producing excess surges in stress hormones, such as cortisol.

In childhood, persistent and intense stress stemming from ACEs actually influences how the brain develops. Toxic stress strengthens connections in the parts of the brain that are associated with fear, arousal, and emotional regulation. Additionally, toxic stress negatively impacts parts of the brain associated with learning and memory. Continuous activation of the stress response system can also produce disruptions of the immune and metabolic systems. This can result in a lifetime of greater susceptibility to physical illness as well as mental health problems.

A person’s reaction to ACEs depends on the person’s own biological stress reactions, the person’s own protective characteristics, the intensity and duration of the ACE, and the strength of the person’s childhood bond to a stable, responsive, and nurturing caregiver. Throughout our childhood, but particularly from infancy through preschool, children depend on sensitive, responsive caregivers to help maintain the normal daily rhythm of the stress hormone, cortisol.