Thriving Despite Childhood Exposure to Neighborhood Violence

October 12, 2023
By: Bria Gresham

Community violence exposure is a pervasive public heath problem that affects some neighborhoods more than others. Sadly, community violence often tracks with the wealth or poverty of the neighborhood, with higher violence in lower income neighborhoods. Children reared in neighborhoods with significant community violence often suffer trauma that increases their risk for emotional and other psychological problems. Trauma also impacts children on a biological level, influencing the activity of very powerful stress systems.

Pictured: Bria Gresham, Ph.D. candidate, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota

In our research group, we study the main stress hormone system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical system, HPA for short. This system produces cortisol a powerful hormone that has anti-inflammatory effects (which is why you put cortisone ointment on rashes), mobilizes the body’s energy stores by breaking down our protein stores, including muscles, and acts in the brain to retain memories (often flashbulb) of traumatic experiences.

A history of exposure to community violence challenges many university students who are the first in their families to go to college (FIRST-GENS). Many first-gens grew up in neighborhoods with fewer resources, ones sometimes plagued with more violence. I was a first-gen college student who is now working on a Ph.D., and I know about the challenges faced by these students. I also know that many are very resilient and have learned ways to cope with many challenges, including the challenge of exposure as children to violence in the neighborhoods they grew up in. It is their coping strategies that I am studying in my “Coping with Previous Experience” (CoPE) study. I am examining whether community violence exposure predicts internalizing (anxiety, depression) symptoms and stress hormone responses to a public speaking stressor in college-aged individuals. More importantly, I am studying how the coping strategies participants use may modify the link between childhood exposure to violence and emotional problems in young adulthood. If we understand the coping strategies that work to protect the psyches of children exposed to violence, then we can design programs that will protect more kids.

Participants in the CoPE study are first-generation college students (i.e., neither parent/guardian having obtained a 4-year college degree) aged 18-25 years. The study is done completely on-line so participants can be from any location across the United States. Participants need to have a computer with internet connection on which they can join the session via ZOOM and a quiet place where they can be during the study, which includes a brief speech and a math task. Participants collect saliva multiple times during the session using a kit we provide and they mail the spit samples back to us. As strange as it seems, the stress hormone our body produces gets into our saliva, so saliva can be assayed to measure how much bodily stress we are under. Participants are paid for their participation. Interested in learning more or participating? Contact us at or 612-504-5142.