How Toxic Stress Affects Your Long-Term Health

Everyone experiences periods of stress in their lives. It is usually a temporary feeling that goes away after the trigger is reconciled or removed. However, for many adults and children, the source of stress never goes away, causing toxic stress. This article explains the significance of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and gives tips on how to combat toxic stress.

Key takeaways:

What is toxic stress?

Toxic stress results from a prolonged or abnormal stress response when our sympathetic nervous system is on constant high alert to actual or perceived risk, not allowing the body to recover fully.

Many adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can cause toxic stress, including:

  • Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
  • Emotional or physical neglect
  • Incarceration of a parent
  • Divorce or separation of a parent
  • Mental illness
  • Domestic violence
  • Bullying
  • Racism
  • Natural disasters
  • Refugee experiences
  • Witnessing violent crime

A trailblazing research study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente found that 1 in 6 adults reported experiencing four or more ACEs growing up, which can lead to harmful chronic health conditions.

Toxic stress and health conditions

The physiological characteristics of a stress response include triggering the sympathetic nervous system followed by the secretion of endocrine hormones (cortisol and epinephrine), increasing breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure.

The stress response aims to move your energy and oxygen to parts of the body that help you confront and manage (fight or flight) a dangerous situation. After your body recognizes that there is no longer a threat, your body recovers to a relaxed state.

Toxic stress keeps the body in a constant stress response, even after the threat is no longer present. The continuous elevation in cortisol (steroid hormone) levels can wreak havoc on our bodies over a long period, resulting in a higher risk of premature death and long-term health conditions, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Liver disease
  • Substance abuse
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Suicide ideation

Experiencing chronic toxic stress has been linked to premature death among adults. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, adults who grew up in poverty and crowded housing have a 41% chance of premature death. Combine that with a separation from a parent and an unstable household, the chances of premature death increase to 50%.

How toxic stress impacts children

Children who encounter four or more ACEs growing up are at a much higher risk of health and learning issues than peers raised in stable households. According to the Center for Youth Wellness, toxic stress can devastate a child's brain development, especially during the early years.

Children with toxic stress are more likely to engage in riskier behavior (substance abuse, teen pregnancy). They are at almost double the risk, compared with children with lower ACE scores, for developing:

  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Mental illness

A person with four or more ACEs is also 12 times more likely to commit suicide and seven times more likely to become an alcoholic.

Many teachers and supporting adults are unaware of the vital link between what a child is experiencing at home and their performance in the classroom, leaving many children labeled as bad students or troublemakers, resulting in poor grades, a greater number of suspensions, and lowered self-confidence when it comes to learning.

In the classroom, toxic stress can be masked as:

  • Inability to focus
  • Trouble with reading and math
  • Acting out in class
  • Increased anxiety and fear
  • Fighting with other students

To help support these students, many educators evaluate these children for special education or suspect they have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Studies have shown a significant association between ACE scores and moderate to severe ADHD. This misdiagnosis can put children on a treatment path of medication instead of treating the underlying issue of toxic stress.

Do you know if you have toxic stress?

Completing the Adverse Childhood Experience Questionnaire can indicate if you or a loved one might be living with toxic stress. The survey is a series of ten questions about the state of your household growing up, including information on whether or not you:

  • Feel cared for and protected.
  • Witness domestic abuse.
  • Encounter sexual abuse.
  • Lost a parent to divorce, death, abandonment, or incarceration.
  • Live with anyone struggling with substance abuse.
  • Were you physically abused or neglected.
  • Experience insults by parents.

If you answered yes to four or more questions, you are at an increased risk for toxic stress and chronic health problems later in life.

Paying attention to your physical and emotional well-being can also help you understand if you may be experiencing toxic stress, such as frequent headaches, stomach pains, sleep disturbances, or increased substance abuse.

The key to understanding toxic stress is making the correlation between what happened to you as a child and how you react to difficult situations and build relationships as an adult. The good news is that you can start to heal from toxic stress with awareness.

Tips on healing toxic stress

Educating yourself about toxic stress and becoming mindful of your stress triggers are the first steps in understanding and healing from adverse childhood experiences.

Adverse childhood experiences expert Nadine Burke Harris, MD, and California's first surgeon general explains to ACEs Aware that what happened to you as a child is not your destiny. There are ways to combat toxic stress to prevent adverse health outcomes, including mindfulness and meditation, regular exercise, being in nature, and establishing safe, stable, and nurturing relationships.

Mindfulness and meditation

Mindfulness is paying close attention to your body’s sensations, thoughts, and feelings without judgment or the urge to suppress difficult emotions.

Meditation, on the other hand, is a type of mindfulness that can help alleviate symptoms of toxic stress and deescalate the body's stress response leading to improved brain function and control and an enhanced sense of well-being.

Regular exercise

Regular exercise is a great way to reduce stress and keep your body strong and fit.

Physical exercise is a neurochemical activity that helps reduce cortisol and adrenaline stress hormone levels. It also increases the production of endorphins, a natural painkiller hormone that also aids in elevating your mood and decreases symptoms of toxic stress.

Being in nature

Immersing yourself in nature or spending time outdoors in natural open spaces typically helps people relax and gain a new perspective on life and what is causing them stress.

Studies have shown that being surrounded by nature decreases cortisol levels, increases feelings of joy, less worrying, and a better sense of well-being.

Establishing healthy relationships

Building stable, safe, and nurturing relationships is the best antidote to combating toxic stress, especially in children, according to a conversation between Andrew Garner, M.D., Ph.D., former chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Having well-established social relationships significantly predicts prolonged health and life expectancy for adults. One study found that loneliness is a more significant risk factor for your health and life expectancy than obesity and a sedentary lifestyle and can be just as dangerous as smoking.

If you are experiencing toxic stress, first know that your past doesn't define you, but it can explain why you feel and act the way you do. Understanding how your ACE score influences your outlook on life, and your ability to be successful in your work and relationships, is critical.

Get out in nature, exercise every day, and make time for your close friends, and you will be well on your way to combating toxic stress and improving your health outcomes.

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