How Does Toxic Stress Affect Your Overall Health And Wellbeing?

Childhood stress can drastically shorten your life. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician and founder of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, is determined to change the way we look at childhood stress.

In her new book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, she discusses how Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, have a lasting impact on our physical and mental health.

What Is Toxic Stress?

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Toxic stress occurs when kids are exposed to adversity or chronic stress for extended periods of time. Toxic stress can change the way our brains are wired. The development of our brains, hormonal systems, and immune system can be impaired by toxic stress. Even the way our DNA is transcribed can be altered by toxic stress.

Adverse Childhood Experiences are the leading causes of toxic stress.

What Are Examples Of Adverse Childhood Experiences

There are three main types of ACEs: Neglect, abuse and household dysfunction. Physical, mental and emotional abuse are the most easily recognized causes of toxic stress. Neglect can be physical or emotional. Household dysfunction includes everything from a mentally ill parent to a nasty divorce.

Do you want to know how many ACEs you've been exposed to? You can take the ACE test here.

Toxic Stressors In Childhood

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To explain how toxic stress affects children, Dr. Burke Harris uses a bear attack as an example. Picture yourself taking a leisurely stroll through a forest. Suddenly, an enormous bear is blocking your path.

The alarm center in your brain, the amygdala, tells your adrenal gland to produce adrenaline and cortisol. Your pupils dilate, your airways open wide and you can hear your heart pounding in your ears.

Your brain is now in survival mode and activates your immune system to help you survive the incoming attack. The inflammation produced by your active immune system can help stabilize any wounds, increasing your chances of survival.

Our bodies have evolved to survive trauma. It's a great characteristic to have in the event we run into an angry bear, but what happens when this process happens regularly in a young child whose brain and body are still developing?

How Does Toxic Stress Affect Your Overall Health And Wellbeing?

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According to a study published by the CDC, toxic stress affects our behavior as well as our mental and physical health. Substance abuse, alcoholism, smoking, poor work ethic and a lack of physical activity are common behavioral problems exhibited by adults who were exposed to toxic stress as a child.

Adults who experienced toxic stress at a young age are more likely to suffer from depression and attempt to take their own lives. Physical health problems associated with toxic stress include obesity, heart disease, sexually transmitted diseases, cancer, diabetes, COPD, asthma, stroke and broken bones.

Poverty And Toxic Stress

Toxic stress can affect any child, but children who live in poverty are more likely to encounter toxic stress compared to their peers who come from a wealthier household. 

Children living in poverty are more likely to encounter adversity. It's more difficult for their parents to protect them from toxic stress when they are working several jobs to feed their family. Living in a dangerous neighborhood also increases the likelihood that a child will suffer an ACE.

Diagnosing Toxic Stress In Children

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Diagnosing toxic stress is difficult. Sometimes the only symptoms are behavioral and could be written off as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. This is why Dr. Burke Harris is recommending that all pediatricians have new patients fill out a confidential questionnaire.

The questionnaire includes questions about exposure to abuse, neglect, substance disorders in the household, food insecurities and homelessness.

Teachers And Toxic Stress

Dr. Burke Harris knows doctors alone can't solve such a widespread problem. Schools need to provide training to recognize the signs a child is dealing with toxic stress. Unfortunately, most schools in America lack the funding to provide adequate training for their staff. Since children exposed to toxic stress often have behavioral problems, they make teachers' jobs even harder.

Dr. Burke Harris explained that a school would never expect a single teacher to educate 30 students with epilepsy at one time, but they do nothing to prevent teachers from having a classroom full of students who were exposed to toxic stress.

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What doctor Burke Harris is saying is that we need to implement systems to identify at-risk students. Doctors, parents and educators have to work together if we want to minimize the damage inflicted by toxic stress. 

Toxic stress does not discriminate. Anyone can suffer from the after-effects of toxic stress regardless of their race, gender or socioeconomic status.

If you're worried your child has been exposed to toxic stress, consult with your family physician and contact a therapist. Early intervention is important.

We want to hear from you. Did you suffer from toxic stress as a child? How did it affect your health as an adult? Do you have any advice for dealing with the effects of toxic stress? Don't forget to invite your friends to the conversation. Our goal is to raise awareness about toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences.