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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Bryan

The Undoing (and Protective) Effect of Positive Experiences

For too long trauma experts have spoken almost exclusively about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), with perhaps one slide about how resilience overcomes ACEs. I am completely guilty of this, and have had people rightfully say to me, "I'm tired of hearing about what's wrong." Research has predominantly focused on ACEs as well, seeking the biologic plausibility for how something that happened 30 years ago has put you at higher risk of, say, cancer. The seminal ACEs study is now 24 years old; but it was only in 2018 that I started noticing research focusing on the effects of positive childhood experiences (PCEs - see infographic) showing up in the literature. And leading the pack (IMO) is Dr. Christina Bethell, out of Johns Hopkins U. She is promoting the construct of flourishing - a term I have rarely come across outside of Christian circles, and one that, for me, immediately conjures a vision of secure, joyful, and life-loving children playing, or perhaps a child enveloped in a parent's warm embrace.

Creating space for flourishing is the antidote to toxic stress. Being intentional about providing PCEs is the way to create that flourishing space. PCEs are powerful - if someone has an ACE score < 4, the presence of PCEs pretty much wipes the slate clean as far as increased risk for poor health outcomes goes. Higher ACE score-generated risks are mitigated by PCEs. Jane Stevens, founder of the trauma-informed community,, notes that PCEs may carry more import than ACEs, in that someone who has a low ACE score and a low PCE score may be at higher risk of experiencing toxic stress than someone who has ACEs and a strong PCE score. I have no doubt that PCEs at UrbanPromise Ministries are the "secret sauce" so long mentioned by founder, Bruce Main.

Healing comes from integrating both ACEs and PCEs into one coherent narrative (PACEs).

And just as I wrote about toxic stress, I don't believe that this information is only applicable in childhood. Duke researcher, Dr. J. Bryan Sexton, conducted research on frontline healthcare workers struggling with pandemic burnout. He has demonstrated the "undoing effect of positive emotions" - we can (if we overcome our bad-mood-lack-of-motivation) generate positive emotions - through intentional moments of hope, joy, gratitude, and others. Research participants had less burnout if they practiced one or more of these moments, as long as they had a choice in which one. And now there's an app, called Three Good Things, that you can download for free - so that one by one we can become Wellness Ambassadors...and be a presence that our society needs right now.

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