It’s no secret that we live in a stressful world. Each and every day, pretty much every person encounters some type of stress in their life. While stress is often thought of as an adult issue, as more research is being done, more information is coming to light on what stressors are affecting children and what impact they are having. Most children are exposed to some stress on a daily basis, whether from school, home or from social interactions. While there are a variety of situations can most definitely cause stress, there is a different kind of stress that every parent should know about called toxic stress. Now, let me be clear…..this is not the type of everyday stress that our bodies are equipped to deal with and move on from. This is stress that occurs from life-altering traumatic experiences and is something that every parent should be aware of. That’s why I encourage each of you to read on and find out what toxic stress is and why you should be concerned about it affecting your child.
What Is Toxic Stress and what Causes It?
Let’s start by taking a look at what toxic stress is and what causes it. In case you didn’t know, there are three basic types of stress; positive stress, tolerable stress and toxic stress. Positive stress can occur on a daily basis and is just part of everyday life….taking a test at school, playing in a sports game, moving to a new town. When events like this happen, our body’s stress hormones help us do what’s needed in the moment. Once we have adjusted and the event has passed, the body goes back to its normal state.
Tolerable stress is more extreme stress that is caused by life events like a scary injury, immigration or living through a natural disaster (like Hurricane Florence that just hit the east coast). This type of stress causes a flood of powerful stress hormones to be released which help our bodies rise to the occasion. During these types of situations, having a caring and trusted person by your side can offset this rush of hormones. In children it can calm the stress response and help the body build resilience.
While all children will at some point experience positive stress and most children will experience tolerable stress, there is a third type of stress called Toxic Stress. Toxic stress is the body’s response to severe and/or lasting stress such as emotional or physical abuse, neglect, parental addiction and mental illness. Without the support of a caring and trusted adult for a child experiencing toxic stress, powerful stress hormones overwhelm the child’s body and brain and can result in lifelong mental, physical and behavioural health issues.
What Effects do Toxic Stress Cause?
Now I know some of you might be thinking that these things just happen and can be dealt with but it’s important to realize that research is pointing to the long term and serious effects of toxic stress. Now, y’all, we all know stress of any kind can impact a person and take a toll both physically and emotionally but toxic stress takes things to the next level. If left unaddressed, toxic stress can affect growth, learning, behavior, immunity and even genes. In fact, kids who are exposed to very high doses of adversity without the proper support of loving and caring adults can have more than double the lifetime risk of heart disease and cancer and nearly a 20-year difference in life expectancy. As if these weren’t sobering enough statistics, these children are also at greater risk for depression, obesity, substance abuse problems, smoking, lung problems and teen pregnancy as well as other chronic illnesses down the road. To me, this information wasn’t shocking but it was sobering and it made me take a different look at every child I come into contact with on a daily basis and wonder if there were Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) happening in their lives that I am simply unaware of. This in turn led me to want to learn more about the symptoms of toxic stress.
What are the Symptoms of Toxic Stress?
We’ve already discussed the type of traumatic life events that can lead to toxic stress and while the examples I listed are not all inclusive, the types of ACES I mentioned earlier are just to give you a general idea of the types of traumatic experiences that can lead to toxic stress. Perhaps your own child or a foster child or adoptive child has experienced one of these traumatic life events. Maybe there is a child in your classroom (if you’re a teacher) or your child’s classroom that you’ve always thought was experiencing some trauma but you weren’t really sure what you should be looking for. I want to make each of you aware of the symptoms of toxic stress, which include:
- Sleep Issues
- Frequent headaches or tummy aches
- Crying more than usual
- Regressing to bed wetting or baby talk
- Developing new fears
- Poor coping skills
- Behavior and learning difficulties
- Mood swings
- Overeating and other compulsive behaviors
- Fear and anxiety triggered by places or people that remind them of the past
If you’re like me, you instantly read through this list and started thinking about all the children in your life. To make things easier, you can find the ACE Quiz here. It will walk you through some simple questions to help determine if a child you know has been exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences and could be at risk for toxic stress. You can also click here to see a TED Talk about how childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime.
What Should I Do if I Know a Child Suffering from Toxic Stress?
Over the next two months, I’ll be sharing more information on ACES, Toxic Stress and how you as an adult can help combat toxic stress in the children in your life with simple tips.
Until then, be sure to check out the Stress Health Website for information, resources and tips to help deal with toxic stress.
Then tell me, have you or your child ever experienced ACES that you think could lead to toxic stress?