Understanding toxic stress and its impact on health and well-being

Toxic stress is long-term, serious stress that can be harmful to health. Understanding what toxic stress is and what you can do to mediate its effects is essential for healing and recovery.

Two parents playing with a child.
Photo: Pexels/Anete Lusina.

We all experience stress at some time in our lives. In fact, our bodies are equipped to respond to stress or challenges that we face through a stress response. During stressful situations, the heart rate increases, blood pressure increases, and it is possible to feel body aches or muscle tension as well as other signs and symptoms of stress. Most of the time, we can deal with the stressor and move on, depending on our individual threshold for stress. However, exposure to stress and adversity over a long period of time without any reprieve can become toxic stress. Toxic stress is serious and is often due to experiences and situations that we cannot control. Some examples of toxic stress include experiencing extreme poverty, violence, racism or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Over time, toxic stress is harmful to health and well-being.

When a person experiences toxic stress, the prolonged activation of the body’s stress response begins to negatively impact the body. Furthermore, stress increases your heart rate, creates elevated hormonal levels in your body, and causes higher blood pressure which can increase the risk of hypertension, heart attack and stroke. Additional physical and mental health conditions related to toxic stress include chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity, depression and immune disorders.

Children are even more vulnerable to the damaging effects of toxic stress, especially when they are without the support of a caring adult to help buffer the stress. Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child states that “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.” Knowing the negative impact that toxic stress can have on an individual across the life span, it is in our best interest, and for the health of all, to reduce toxic stress by preventing adverse childhood experiences and promoting positive community environments where all children and families can grow and thrive. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends multigenerational strategies that focuses on changing norms, environments, and behaviors to address the conditions that can give way to adverse childhood experiences and subsequent toxic stress.

While we cannot always control what is causing toxic stress, there are things that we can do individually to mediate its effects on the body and help regulate the stress response. In her book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-term Effects of Childhood Adversity, Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, physician, researcher and advocate for the awareness of ACEs, offers six ways for adults and children to combat toxic stress. These strategies are:

  • Sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene.
  • Exercise. Make regular exercise a priority.
  • Nutrition. Try to eat a variety of nutritious foods each day.
  • Mindfulness. Practice mindfulness daily.
  • Mental health. Seek mental health services if needed.
  • Healthy relationships. Engage in meaningful connections with others.

Burke-Harris encourages checking in with yourself on how you are doing in these six areas and having an intentional conversation with a medical provider as a good place to start. Dr. Burke-Harris offers a hopeful message of recovery regarding toxic stress. She emphasizes that once people understand toxic stress and its impacts on health and wellbeing, they’ve taken the first step towards healing. By taking good care of yourself, you will be better able to care for and support others healing from toxic stress.

Michigan State University Extension offers educational programming in each of the six strategy areas that Dr. Burke Harris recommends. Please visit our website to learning more about online and in-person programs such as, Sleep Education for Everyone (SLEEP), Stress Less with Mindfulness, RELAX Alternatives to Anger and Mental Health First Aid. For more information, visit MSU Extension's Food & Health website.

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