Your Number Story


Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Nadine Burke Harris talk ACEs.


Why should I care about my Number Story?

When we’re a child experiencing severe, ongoing stress — like ACEs or discrimination — it can cause our body’s stress response systems to get stuck ‘on’ and disrupt our brains, our bodies, even our genes.

These disruptions can affect us in childhood and have ripple effects throughout our lives.

How ACEs and toxic stress can change us

ACEs and toxic stress change how we function, not just how we feel. Explore how they can change us in these three ways: brain and body, epigenetics, and coping.

We’re born with approximately 100 billion brain cells, and before we’re even out of the womb, our brain is connecting the dots between them, forming trillions of neural pathways. Those connections tell the heart how to pump, the mind how to think, and control how we feel and act.

ACEs and toxic stress are especially impactful to the brain from birth to three, although toxic stress can severely impact the brain as it continues to develop into our early 20s, and throughout our lifetime.

Toxic stress also triggers the part of our brain that controls the fight, flight, or freeze response.

This can make it hard for us to regulate our emotions. It can make concentrating and learning more challenging. And it can make us feel anxious and on-guard even when we’re safe. 

Toxic stress can throw our bodies out of whack in a lot of different ways. It can disrupt our immune system (which fights infections and chronic disease) and our endocrine and metabolic systems (which regulate our hormones and convert food to energy). It can also disrupt our DNA.

DNA is the instruction manual for how our bodies are put together. Today, through the study of epigenetics, we know that our DNA instruction manual is always being edited.


Epigenetic tags act like sticky notes on the pages of our DNA manual with instructions on what parts to keep and what to cut. They tell our body whether to express or suppress a particular gene, and to what extent.


While some of these tags don’t change — like what color our eyes are —  many can be influenced by what happens to us. So our early experiences can literally change our genetic makeup.


What’s more, science is teaching us that experiences affecting our ancestors can be passed down through these epigenetic changes. And that even before we’re born, these changes can be passed along.

Starting from when we’re a baby, we get cues and feedback from the people and world around us. A nurturing “give and take” helps us develop in a healthy way.


When we’re faced with unhealthy “give and take” — or when we’re neglected — we figure out ways to survive. While these protective behaviors may have helped us as children, they can adversely affect our health and well-being as adults.

This may all sound frightening.
But there’s good news.

Science has shown that the effects of toxic stress are both treatable and preventable.

The potential lifelong effects

The effects of toxic stress brought on by ACEs and other childhood adversity can be embedded throughout our entire being. So it’s not surprising that their effects can ripple into every area of our lives, throughout our lives.

Science shows that the higher our ACE score, the greater the odds are that we may experience chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and depression. Nine of the ten leading causes of death are associated with ACEs.

All of us want to achieve our full potential. If we experienced multiple ACEs and toxic stress without interventions and positive support, there can be more barriers for us in school, work, or relationships, and we can experience more health conditions that may even impact how long we live. But many people who have a lot of ACEs have found ways to feel better and live the lives they want for themselves. And science tells us that our bodies can heal. Visit Heal Myself to learn more and take the next step.

Entire families can be profoundly affected by ACEs and other traumatic events. Sometimes it’s not immediately apparent how ACEs affect different members of the family. Sometimes it is. Oftentimes, feelings of shame, guilt, or blame come with ACEs, and they can have a big impact — on us and our family — for a long time if they aren’t addressed.

Probabilities are not certainties

This fact is so important, we are repeating it. Probabilities are not certainties.

Just because statistics say something is more likely, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. We have the power to buffer the effects of toxic stress for the children in our lives. And we have the power to heal from the effects of toxic stress brought on by our own ACEs. You are in charge. You have the power. You can write the story of your number.

ACEs can be passed down from generation to generation

The effects of ACEs can be passed on from generation to generation through both behavior and biology.

Epigenetics — those “sticky notes” that tell our DNA to express or suppress certain genes — come into play here too. The toxic stress response brought on by ACEs can cause our body to tag certain high-risk genes as “on” (or protective ones as “off”). Those tags can also be passed on to our children.
The behavior we grow up witnessing in the adults around us imprints our impression of what’s “normal.” If we grow up in a household where we experience or witness abuse, for example, odds are higher we’ll repeat that cycle with our own children.

And here’s some good news…

Healing, strength and resilience can also be passed down from generation to generation

Positive Childhood Experiences can prevent ACEs and toxic stress from occurring in the first place, and can also reduce the impact of ACEs, keeping children’s brains and bodies on track for healthy development.

ACEs are what happened to us. They do not define who we are. Our history — and our future — aren’t fully written yet. It’s up to us to decide what’s in the next chapter.

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