The Effects of Toxic Stress On The Brain & Body – How to Heal & Protect

The Effects of Toxic Stress On The Brain & Body - How to Make a Powerful Difference

Stress is a normal part of life, and so is our response to it. The physiological response to stress is hardwired into all of us and is evolution’s way of keeping us alive. In times of stress, our heart beats faster, our blood pressure increases, and adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) surge through our system to make us stronger, faster, more alert and more powerful versions of our normal selves. In short, the physiological changes that come with stress are to give us the physical resources to deal with whatever might break our stride.

But – the stress response was only ever meant to happen for brief periods of time.  In the right doses, the cortisol (the stress hormone) that surges through the body in times of stress will help us to perform at our peak. When the cortisol is turned on and off quickly, it energises, enhances certain types of memory, and sets the immune system to go.

In a chronically stressful environment, the body’s stress response is always on – there is very little relief from the surge of chemicals and the increase in heart rate and blood pressure. When this happens, the stress becomes toxic and can cause dramatic changes in the brain and body – but there are ways to heal.

What is Toxic Stress?

Toxic stress isn’t so much about the cause of the stress, but about the chronic and ongoing nature of the stress.

Everyone will experience stress. It’s a very normal and healthy part of being human. For children though, a little goes a long way. It is through stressful times that kids learn resilience, determination, optimism and how to soothe themselves when things start to get tough. When stress is managed in the context of loving, stable and caring relationships, where children feel safe and secure, they can get through stressful, traumatic times without scarring. 

The fallout from physical or emotional abuse and neglect is obvious, but then there are the more indirect hits, such as chronic conflict in the home, a parent battling addiction, maternal depression, or serious illness. The stress from these doesn’t have to turn toxic but it can. A prime conditions for this happening is when there is no loving, supportive, attentive relationship to buffer the impact. The relationship doesn’t have to be with a parent – any adult can make a powerful difference.

The brain, the body and toxic stress.

When the brain is constantly exposed to a toxic environment, it will shut down to protect itself from that environment. The brain continues working, but it’s rate of growth slows right down, creating a vulnerability to anxiety, depression and less resilience to stress. 

Toxic stress affects people across all stages of the life span. The long-term effects will differ depending on the age of the person and the stage of brain development they are at when they are exposed to the stress. 

The younger the brain, the more damaging the effects of toxic stress. A prenatal and early childhood brain is growing, developing and absorbing so much of what it is exposed to in the environment. This makes it incredibly vulnerable to chemical influences, such as stress hormones, which can cause long-term changes. Stress during this period will have broad impact, particularly on learning and memory.

Toxic stress during later childhood and adolescence will cause more problems for attention and impulse and emotional control, as these are the parts of the brain that are developing rapidly during this period.

During late adolescence or early adulthood, exposure to toxic stress will create a greater sensitivity to anything stressful and a more intense and enduring stress response.

Exposure to toxic stress during adulthood will intensify the ageing process and affect memory, cognition and emotion.

Here are some of the ways toxic stress can lay a heavy hand on the brain and the body. The degree to which toxic stress will cause damage depends on a number of things, including genetics, the availability of at least one strong, loving relationship to act as a buffer, and lifestyle factors that can potentially fortify the brain against the assault of toxic stress.

  1. Learning, memory & emotion.

    The experience of chronic poverty, neglect or physical abuse early in life seems to change the amygdala and the hippocampus. These are the parts of the brain that are vital for learning, memory and processing stress and emotion. A young brain is developing and strengthening connections all the time, and so it is particularly vulnerable to toxic stress. With toxic stress it’s a double hit  – it gets in the way of the production of new connections, while at the same time reducing the connections that are already there. This compromises the architecture of the brain, weakening the foundation upon which all learning, behaviour and health will be built.

  2. Increased vulnerability to addiction.

    Addiction is a way of distracting from emotional pain and to avoid sitting in painful emotions. Addictive behaviour can provide temporary relief from physical pain and can blunt emotional and psychological pain. Research has found strong links between toxic stress and addictive behaviour, including the overuse of alcohol, tobacco and illicit drugs.

  3. Over-reactivity and hypersensitivity to possible threat.

    Experience changes the brain. The more a particular part of the brain is activated, the stronger and more active and permanent it becomes. When the threat response is continually triggered, both adults and children will develop a hypersensitivity to threat. This will play out with a tendency to misread ambiguous or non-threatening situations as threatening, a greater likelihood to sense anger or hostility (even when there is none), and the likelihood of being in a constant state of high alert, even in the absence of any real stress or threat.

  4. Increased stress response as adults.

    Research has found that even when adults have been long free of an abusive environment, there can be a greater tendency for everyday problems – traffic, arguments, disappointments – to trigger a heightened stress response. This can cause trouble for relationships and undermine physical and mental health. The abuse doesn’t have to be severe to have an effect. Physical abuse, whether mild, moderate or severe, resets the stress response to high and that’s where it stays.

  5. Changes in DNA that persist through generations.

    Research has found that when rats were exposed to toxic stress early in their lives, there were changes in a particular gene – the BDNF gene. The BDNF gene is involved in making a protein (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) found in the brain and spinal cord. This protein promotes the growth of new neurons and stops existing neurons from dying. It also has an important role in learning and memory, and is found in the parts of the brain that control eating, drinking and body weight. Low BDNF is associated with underdeveloped brain tissue. What’s worrying is that the changes in this gene that were found in the rats exposed to the toxic stress, were also found in their offspring, even though those offspring had not been exposed to toxic stress. This suggests that toxic stress changes the brain in ways that can be inherited, potentially creating vulnerabilities (not certainties) within following generations, whether or not those generations are exposed to toxic stress. It is important to remember that DNA is not destiny.

  6. Greater vulnerability to mental illness.

    In a meta-analysis of 16 studies involving more than 23,544 people, it was found that people with a history of chronic stress during childhood had double the likelihood of depression in adulthood. They also had a 43% higher chance of being non-responsive to therapy or medication. Of course, not all cases of depression have chronic childhood stress as their roots, but chronic stress can  create a vulnerability. One of the reasons for this may be learned helplessness – the learning that nothing you do will make a difference to important needs being met.

  7. Greater vulnerability to physical illness.

    Chronic stress elevates the stress hormones which interfere with the functioning of the endocrine and immune systems. This has been associated with elevated inflammatory responses that can lead to auto-immune illnesses such as arthritis, allergies and asthma.

  8. Migraines and chronic pain conditions.

    Toxic stress during childhood is a significant risk factor for migraine. It is also associated with an earlier age of onset of migraine (16 years compared to 19 years). People exposed to abuse and neglect during childhood are more likely to have other pain conditions compared to those who have not been exposed to abuse. Specifically, research has found a link between emotional abuse and a greater prevalence of irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, and arthritis. Physical neglect has been associated with arthritis. For women, physical abuse has been associated with endometriosis, and physical neglect has been associated with uterine fibroids.

  9. Compromised immune system.

    The body’s stress response is activated within milliseconds of exposure to stress, but the immune system takes much longer to respond. This can be hours, sometimes days. When the stress is short-lived, even if it is intense, the immune system will not be affected. When the stress is more chronic and longer lasting, stress-related chemicals (cortisol, adrenaline) will keep surging through the body. Cortisol (the stress hormone) shuts down the capacity of the immune cells to respond to foreign invaders. When the release of cortisol is persistent, the immune cells don’t get the chance to recover. This means that when the body become invaded by viruses or infections, the immune system doesn’t have the heft it needs to fight them. Without anything to put up a fight, the body becomes an easy target for illness.

How to buffer the effects of toxic stress.

Chronic stress can’t always be avoided – the loss of a parent, an ugly divorce, conflict in the home, chronic maternal depression – but a relationship with an adult that is loving, responsive and stable can buffer against the effects of stress and stop it from turning toxic.

The environment might continue to be stressful and deeply painful for a child, but research has shown that with the support of a loving adult, the physiological effects of the stress response can be softened, minimising the risk of long-term damage.

A supportive adult can put stress into context by explaining how it happened, how often it will happen or whether it will happen again. This is an important part of helping a child to see the world as less threatening and to provide them with a sense of empowerment and the capacity to influence their environment, even if only in a very small way.

Never underestimate the importance one person can make to the life story of a child. 

  • Build them up.

    It is generally accepted that it takes 5-7 positive interactions to make up for a negative interaction. This is because our brains are wired to notice the negative (threats). It’s what keeps us alive. We will be quicker to notice the negative and will have a more intense response compared to positive events. Of course, interactions that are more disconnecting will take more of an ‘emotional topping up’ of the relationship. The more we can build kids up by giving them meaningful praise and opportunities to succeed and gain a sense of mastery, the more we can strengthen the pathways that help them feel positive emotions, deal with stress, and build their confidence.

  • Touch

    Humans were meant to be touched. It’s connecting, reassuring and it helps to build a protective barrier between people and the things that could hurt them. We all need it. Deliberate hugs and incidental, safe touches will warm them and build them. Of course though, it’s also important to be guided by them. If they flinch or shy away from being touched, respect that.

  • Find them an escape.

    If home is stressful, there needs to be some sort of temporary escape – for adults and children. A sport, a hobby, time with friends or other family will provide opportunities to relief from the emotional and physiological effects of the stress and validate personal strengths.

  • Be responsive.

    We are all hardwired to connect with others. Children and babies will attempt to interact with the people who are important to them – it’s what we have been all biologically organised to do. Warmly responding to a child’s attempts at interaction – their babbling, reaching, crying or chatter – with  eye contact, talking or hugging will strengthen the connections in the child’s brain and fortify them against toxic stress. 

  • Strengthen the brain.
  • For a child, or an adult who has been exposed to toxic stress either as a child or in their current environment, anything that builds the brain will make a critical difference – diet, exercise, mindfulness, and connecting with a supportive, loving other. Strengthening the brain will help to put back what toxic stress takes out.

  • Mindfulness – for adults and children.

    Research has found that mindfulness can protect adults against the effects of toxic stress from their childhoods. Mindfulness seems to provide some sort of resilience to the effects, improving the general well-being and helping them to be more effective with their own children. The risk of having a number of health conditions, such as depression, headache, or back pain, was almost halved in those with the highest levels of mindfulness compared with those who had the lowest. These findings stood even for those who had experienced several types of childhood adversity. (See here for a quick how to for mindfulness for adults and mindfulness for children.)

Genes and biology are NOT destiny – Turning around toxic stress.

Above all else, it is important to remember that biology and history are not destiny. Many of the effects of toxic stress can be reversed. The earlier toxic stress can be caught and met with a healthy response, the more effectively the healing from its effects. Relationships are key and healthy, supportive, stable ones have an extraordinary capacity to fortify people – children and adults – against the damaging effects of toxic stress. It’s the power of human connection, and it’s profound.

57 Comments

Maria

This is a great article. I just heard the term ‘toxic stress’ yesterday. I have had general anxiety since childhood. The source I have never really uncovered except a constant tension in the home over money amongst other things and a few traumatizing events. I don’t blame anyone. We all respond differently.
I have had insomnia since I was a baby and it got worse over the years. Medication has helped some but now…finally at age 40 after four days of no sleep and a serious enough accident… onset of menopause is making all of it worse. But I can say sleeping can be a huge help whether medicated or not.
In sum, things have really changed in the last few years. My job, being self-employed, environment, very demanding but no real up sides, and loss of any physical/ social outlet, adrenal exhaustion in 2012 ended my pro bike racing career/ I am so tired that socializing becomes a chore, the aggregate of stressors with no release, no positivity, and no one to trust, has created a state of chronic stress racheting up to anxiety atttacks now and it has affected my health greatly.
I am either working full speed or sick. It’s no life really. I am working on change but it’s not easy especially when yet another task feels not very stimulating.
I learned so much from this article. Sort of a road map out of the morass of sadness and pain that is my life. I am going to write each topic down and figure out what I can do now and what I need to work toward.
I do pray, try stay connected to family and friends, always try to be kind and grateful. No matter how bad things feel, I know there are others who are struggling more but we also construct our world with the words and thoughts we use and have.
Thank you for putting a well-organized, factual, self-guided publication out there that is not focused on selling yet more products or dispelling this connection between stress and the endocrine system as well as illustrating parallels bwt stress in esp in childhood and types of addiction that become a person’s actual safety or escape not because they are weak but because sometimes any fix feels better than nothing.
I hope you keep researching and writing because I think there are many people who relate to this and could use a structure to address and attempt to progress
Many thanks!
~M

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Kim

What can I say without writing a book. I’m having an episode of toxic stress now. Blood work fine. Everything psychology is fine, the problem are the commodity. I eat a lot, fatigue to the point I can’t cat h my breath, pustular psoriasis internal. All because of abusive verbal relationships. I have an appointment with psychiatry tomorrow. Amen I found out about this. I’ve also been on antibiotics 6 months straight. Ugh

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Deborah C

My toxic stress response has been re-activated at age 60, for my aged husband is trying to starve himself. I perceived that a friend blames me for my husband’s behavior. Tried to go to sleep with a racing pulse & rapid respiration.

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Wendy

This makes so much sense. I lived with a mum suffering from anxiety and depression and chronic pain from around age 10. I was the oldest child. It was terrifying to be with someone who expressed so much pain and I was unable to help in any way. I felt responsible for looking after her and that doing anything else would be selfish. My dad was not coping very well, he went to work and I would long for the time he came home so I could escape. I am now 60 and it has effected my life with my kids. I react quite badly if they are upset although I try not to show it. I married when I was 21 to a good man who has been there for me all the time.

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Deborah J

Omg this answers so many questions I didn’t know I had. It explains me and my children. I wish you knew if starting touching and positive reinforcement at over 21 helped the young adult heal. That would be miraculous!

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Millie H

Thanks for helping me understand that stress can affect the immune system when it is lasting for a long period of time which makes you prone to sicknesses. I guess that is the reason why my sister has been getting sick these past days. It must be due to the stress she has at work wherein there are colleagues who have been really getting in her nerves such as those who are too lazy.

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Rachel Davis

As a mother of 2 and a pr virus sufferer of ptsd myself, following escaping many years of psychological abuse, I have seen first hand the effects of stress on children’s development. I believe connection and self connection to be the most effective tools to helping and have now dedicated my life to use music to increase connection, compassion and courage in children. Thank-you for this article.

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Charlie

Rachel, could you please explain using music to increase connection, compassion and courage? I have two littles who I believe I have damaged from my own suffering. They undoubtedly picked up on my deeply damaged negative vibes and my daughters memory and learning abilities are greatly reduced in some areas although her general demeanor is astounding and often commented on. Im a conscious parent and am trying to heal myself and my children simultaneously and we have a love for music!

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Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting
When children are struggling to physically control their bodies, we support them in ways that strengthen. If they’re struggling to write, for example, we don’t punish or shame them. We guide them and show them by doing ‘with’. We also lift them up, ‘I know you can do this. Keep going. You’re getting better and better.’ We also don’t wait for perfection. ‘You wrote a number 4! Nice work you!’ We sit with and do with, over and over. We also give them a break when they get frustrated or upset.

It’s the same for behaviour. Big behaviour comes from big feelings or attempts to meet valid needs. (And all needs are valid.) It is this way for all of us. When we’re upset or angry, the last thing we need is for someone to tell us we can’t be, or to lecture or shame us. Kids are the same.

With kids and teens though, there can be a sense that we need to ‘do’ something in response to big behaviour, so we lay down punishments or consequences with a view to teaching a lesson.

But - unless the consequences make sense (punishments never do), they risk teaching lessons we don’t want them to learn:
- that the environment is fragile and won’t tolerate mistakes. 
- that secrecy and lies are a safer option than coming to us. 
- shut down. They put a lid on expressing big feelings. The feelings will still be there, but they aren’t getting the vital guidance from us on how to calm them (through co-regulation). The risk is that they will eventually call on unhealthy ways to calm the fierce stress neurobiology that comes with big feelings.

Consequences have to make sense. Maybe it’s to repair or reconnect. Discipline has to teach. It’s not about what we do to them but about what we nurture within them. Is that trust and the capacity to learn and grow? Or is it fear or shame.

Often the only response that’s needed is a loving conversation with us. ‘What happened?’ ‘What were you hoping would happen?’ ‘What did you need that you didn’t get?’ What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right?’ Because if discipline is about learning, the most powerful consequence is the strong, loving conversation with us that lights their way and speaks softly to the safety of us.♥️

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