This article by Tracy Fauver originally appeared in the Davis Enterprise on July 9, 2017.
In response to her husband’s unexpected death in 2015, Cheryl Sandberg contacted Wharton professor Adam Grant, a psychologist, to better understand her trauma and grief, and gain hope for recovery. She learned so much about resilience that she coauthored a book about it with Grant, titled “Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy.”
In her keynote address at Virginia Tech’s 2017 spring commencement, Sandberg echoed the thesis of her book when she said to graduates, “We don’t have a set amount of resilience — it’s a muscle that anyone can build.”
At Yolo County Court Appointed Special Advocates, building resilience is one of our biggest initiatives. As I mentioned in my first column, we reference the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study to show how relationships build resilience. I scratched the surface the first time I spoke about it in this column, and now I will go into more depth.
The ACEs study came from a joint effort by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente in the mid-1990s to better understand the effects that childhood trauma have on an individual’s entire life. For the study, traumatic childhood experiences were divided into categories including physical, sexual or verbal abuse; physical and emotional neglect; a child who had a family member with a mental illness, an addiction or is in prison; a child who witnessed his or her mother being abused; or a child who lost his or her parents to separation, divorce or another reason.
Participants were given an “ACEs score” based on their report of these traumas. Individuals with an ACEs score above 4 (one in six people statistically fit this category) were found to have a much higher risk of adult-onset chronic health problems like hearts disease, cancer, diabetes, suicide, emphysema, alcoholism and more. They also were more likely to have more marriages, more broken bones, more drug prescriptions and more autoimmune diseases.
People with an ACEs score above 6 have average life spans that are 20 years shorter than those with no ACEs.
These health and safety problems are the result of chronic stress. We all have stress in our lives so it is important to differentiate chronic stress from stress that actually may be good for us. For example, as a child prepares for his or her first day of school, that child undoubtedly is under some degree of stress. That child then finds ways to process and overcome that stress with the help of supportive parents and teachers.
The next time that child is under stress about a new situation, that child has better coping mechanisms. We call this kind of stress yellow-light stress.
Red-light stress is where ACEs come in. When a child is under red-light, or toxic stress, his or her body is activating the highest-level stress response (fight, flight or freeze) to process it. As stress hormones course through the body, pupils dilate, airways open up and the heart starts pumping faster.
I like to describe red-light stress with a visualization exercise. Imagine you are in the forest and suddenly run across a bear in your path. Immediately, your body has activated the protective mechanisms that give you the best chance of escaping with your life. Good for you!
But imagine that you are a child and the bear comes home through the door every night. This puts a child in a constant state of fight or flight and his or her hormonal response simply cannot keep up, wreaking long-term havoc on his or her health.
With this description, it is obvious that most of our foster children suffer from chronic stress. But the good news — and my favorite part of the ACEs study — is that we can mitigate that stress. The better news is that the answer is relatively simple.
Relationships are the leading factor in helping children and adults with high ACEs scores become more resilient. In fact, the research even finds that this is dose-dependent, meaning the more positive interactions and relationships people have, the more resilient they become. With resilience comes stress reduction, and with stress reduction comes better health.
At Yolo County CASA, we educate all of our CASA volunteers on the ACEs study because our CASA volunteers are our first line of defense in mitigating our foster children’s high ACEs scores through the close relationships they form.
In addition to educating our CASA volunteers, we also participate in important events to raise awareness on how to build more resilient communities through understanding childhood trauma. We are leading the Resilient Yolo movement in Yolo County with key organizations, including Family Hui, Empower Yolo, Help Me Grow, CommuniCare Health Centers, Yolo Conflict Resolution Center and Yolo County’s Health and Human Services Agency.
I also recently participated in an informational briefing at the California State Capitol about the need to extend support to former foster youths beyond age-based deadlines. Childhood trauma was the cornerstone of my talk.
To better understand childhood trauma and the ACEs study, go to acestoohigh.com, or acesconnection.com. Both of these websites are full of information and literature about childhood trauma and how to mitigate it.
In the meantime, please join us in building a healthier and safer community through building relationships and thus resilience. Our next CASA volunteer training starts on Monday. Will you help a child become more resilient? You’ll give them a better, and longer, life.
More information is on our website, www.yolocasa.org, or you can call the office at 530-661-4200.
— Tracy Fauver, LCSW, is the executive director of Yolo County CASA. Her column is published monthly.