Trauma & TOXIC Stress
Learning to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy childhood development. However, extensive research on the biology of stress now shows that healthy development can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and brain. Such toxic stress can have damaging effects on learning, behavior, and health across the lifespan.
It's important to note that not all stress is bad. Some stress motivates us to plan and prepare, for example; when we are anticipating a public speaking event we feel some positive stress. It’s important to distinguish among three kinds of responses to stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. As described below, these three terms refer to the stress response systems’ effects on the body, not to the stressful event or experience itself:
Positive stress response is a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunization.
Tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.
Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.
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How to HELP
There are two important ways to intervene on behalf of children experiencing toxic stress. First, adults can help soothe children who are upset, calm their emotions, and help their stress response system come back to normal levels. Second, adults can help teach children healthy coping skills to deal with stress later on.
The second kind of intervention involves prevention: targeting the source of toxic stress so that it doesn’t continue. This approach involves helping the caregivers. An intervention for a parent—such as support to leave an abusive relationship or receiving quality addiction treatment—is also an intervention for the child, who will no longer experience the stressful effects of witnessing abuse or parental addiction.
Evidence suggests the most effective interventions support caregivers and children both individually and through activities they work on together to strengthen their relationship.