The Science of Why Compassion Works: It’s in the ACE’s

The Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente ran the initial ACE study from 1995-1997, and the results were astounding. More than 17,000 middle and upper-middle class people from San Diego answered 10 questions about childhood stressors they had experienced, and their results showed an undeniable correlation between childhood toxic stress and adult chronic diseases.  The ACE study showed that the more Adverse Childhood Experiences a person had, the higher their rate for a shocking array of negative health consequences as an adult, such as:

  • heart disease
  • lung cancer
  • diabetes
  • obesity
  • autoimmune diseases
  • depression
  • violence
  • being a victim of violence
  • suicide


What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?  Click here to take the ACE test

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are toxic stressors in childhood that include experiencing any of these things before age 18:

  • verbal abuse  •  physical abuse  •  sexual abuse  •  emotional neglect  
  • physical neglect  •  abandonment (including parental divorce)

Or being exposed to these things in the home:

  • domestic violence  •  substance abuse  •  mental illness  • violence

The ACE test tells you how much childhood toxic stress your body has been exposed to. For each 1 item on the test, your ACE score increases by 1.  If you were emotionally neglected by a mentally ill mother, your ACE score is 2.  If you were verbally and physically abused by an alcoholic father who also abused your mother, your ACE score is 4. The higher the score, the more toxic stress your developing body experienced.

Each number on the scale increases the probability of a variety of negative life and health outcomes such as:

  • marijuana use  •  smoking  •  drug use  
  • high risk sexual behavior  •  homelessness

The initial ACE study happened over 15 years ago.  It has been replicated across the country since then. States like Washington are taking a hard look at the data and drawing the undeniable conclusion: our health care crisis is directly related to a crisis in compassion. Toxic childhood experiences aren’t something we have to “let go of” and just “get on with our lives.”  The body remembers, and the worse it hurt, the worse it continues to hurt.  The ACE study is hard science that shows without a shadow of a doubt that childhood stress creates adult health distress.  The solution is compassion:  addressing the trauma underlying the symptoms, whether the ‘symptoms’ are anger, acting out and addictions, obesity or other health conditions.  We need to pay attention to adverse childhood experiences in our kids NOW—and address the stress as soon as we can.

Compassion works because it addresses the ROOT cause of mental and physical trauma:  a lack of love.  All the ACE’s are ultimately, at their core, experiences of being hated, hurt or neglected instead of loved, supported and cared for.  The solution is compassion, and that’s exactly what one school in Washington state is proving.

Jane Stevens is one of the world’s experts on ACE’s and does a fantastic job of reporting breaking news in the world of ACE research and how it’s being applied in schools, clinics and communities. Her article about Lincoln High School’s new, compassionate approach to discipline—based on the hard science of ACE realities—is one of the best I’ve ever read about transforming education in the 21st century.  I warmly encourage you to click here to read it! 

Lincoln High School

Lincoln High School