Toxic Stress: What It Is & How We Can Help

Toxic Stress: What It Is & How We Can Help

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 Did you know that stress can disrupt children’s mental and even physical development? While some stress is a natural (and even helpful) part of life, prolonged stress responses can lead to problems with health, behavior, and learning down the line. This is called “toxic stress,” and it’s a serious problem for children worldwide.

What causes toxic stress?

Adversity, and the stress that accompanies it, is an important part of childhood development. Learning how to overcome and resolve stressful situations with the help of supportive adults builds essential coping and social skills. This is considered “positive stress.” Positive stress is brief, non-harmful, and is cushioned by an environment of supportive relationships. Toxic stress, on the other hand, is strong, frequent and/or prolonged stress that goes unmediated by supportive adults. Examples of frequent causes of toxic stress responses are childhood abuse, neglect, exposure to violence, untreated mental illness of a caregiver, and the effects of family economic hardship.It’s important to note that toxic stress is defined by the amount trauma inflicted by a particular experience, not the experience itself. The child’s genetic predisposition can be partially responsible for how traumatic a particular event is. Meanwhile, any stressful environment can trigger toxic stress when it is excessively frequent or prolonged, is coming from many sources, or its context and timing are especially injurious. 

How does toxic stress affect development?

Toxic stress disrupts the development of brain and organ structures, which can cause mental and physical disabilities or illnesses that last well into adulthood. Strong toxic stress can often cause cognitive and behavioral development delays and/or limitations. Health problems that can manifest down the line include heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and various mental illnesses. 

How can we help?

Research shows that supportive, responsive, and healthy relationships with adults early in life can prevent or reverse the effects of toxic stress. The earlier in the child’s life these relationships are established, the easier it is to combat toxic stress. While reducing the child’s exposure to toxic stress environments is essential, it’s not always possible to remove the child from the environment entirely. In those cases, dedicated programs and services that introduce productive, buffering relationships with adults can help significantly.