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.



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.

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!

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.

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.


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!


I went from working 40 hours a week to mandatory 58 hours. I can utilize the extra income however day to day tasks are getting difficult. First week of mandatory overtime I have locked my keys in car, left my cell phone at break table outside, left my stovetop burner on while at work and my work habits have been disorganized(where did I put that tool?) I feel like my memory is 20 years older. What the heck is going on here?







Wow. This explains so much. My parents had a horrible relationship, my mother was off her rocker half the time with screaming and slamming doors and now and then just whaling on me with her hands, my first marriage was almost as bad as theirs but I always thought if it was somehow better then I wasn’t so bad off, eh? I’ve been trying to NOT be my mother in raising my son, but I know when I get stressed as a frazzled single mom doing everything on her own I’m not doing him justice. My entire life has pretty much been chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels, and now adrenal fatigue. I have an incredibly difficult time accepting help or even asking for it in the first place. I was well taught to not advocate for myself and that my feelings didn’t matter. I WILL not continue this cycle with my son and this article is so helpful in laying it all out. Thank you!


This was an amazing article and it really helped me put some things in to perspective. I am currently six months pregnant and have had a very stressful pregnancy. My believe grandmother died suddenly, a hurricane did damage to my house, and I’m also having some issues with bills. On top of that, I have a diagnoses of clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. I’ve done everything to try and manage my stress: eating well, exercise, mindful mediation, essential oils and relaxation techniques. I’m managing it better but one thought keeps dragging me back into depression: Have I already hurt my baby in a way that’s going to effect him long-term? This thought haunts me every day and is just causing my stress to continue and I can’t let it go. Is there any words of wisdom or encouragement you could give me? Is there a way for me to repair this damage once my baby is born?

Robert Olcott

I hope the article in November 2017 Pediatrics: “An Interdisciplinary Approach to Toxic Stress: Learning the Lingo” by Laura Livaditis, will enhance this discussion.


This article echoes so many sources that I have been tapping into lately, yet eloquently condences the information down to key points and an easy to read piece. Thank you for writing it!!!

I first heard about ACEs and toxic stress when I watched “Paper Tigers” last year. Then, I attended the Trauma Informed School Conference in St. Louis last summer. Last Thursday night I got the opportunity to view “Resilience” and then discussed on Friday with my therapist more ways to help myself, my family, my friends, and my students become more resilient.

I am passionate about keeping the dialogue going since our well-being depends on it! I am 46 years old. I am a special education teacher going into my fifth year of teaching. I am just flabbergasted that I did not have one college class making me trauma informed, yet it’s so crucial to successful teaching. Thankfully, we already knew much of what we did mattered but, as others mentioned above, I wasn’t truly aware of the cost of caring in regards to my own health.

If we know better, we’ll do better. Keep doing what you do to raise awareness!

Robert Olcott

Thank You for mentioning, “Toxic Stress”, and “Paper Tigers”. I hope my other comments [before I got to read your comment] offer added support. I hope the NEA’s recent adoption of a trauma-informed policy, will yield other states besides Massachusetts and Washington state to institute state-wide trauma-informed School Disciplinary policies, as well as Georgia Juvenile Judge Steven Teske’s advocacy [like his 12/8/2015 JJIE article] noting ‘Kids charged with ‘delinquent acts’ are not ‘juvenile delinquents’, they’re neurologically wired to do ‘stupid things’ (Connecticut invited Judge Teske to present there.)


Hi there, a good article.
Experiencing repeated depressions due to toxic marriage, is there a healing plan? Taking into consideration that one of the results of this marriage is isolation and my family is far away. Any hope? looking for sources of strength…


I am not a medical professional, just someone that has struggled with depression and sees that there isn’t a comment under yours yet. So, I will share what works for me: Mindful Meditation daily can do wonders. (There are guided sessions on Youtube if you don’t have another resource to learn how to do it.) Exercise, preferably outside, to make connections to nature. Adequate sleep, but not excessive. Avoid news, situations that will further depress you until you feel more solid. Get with a friend for laughter in some form…movie, visiting, etc. These things along with a good therapy session once or twice a month helps me to stay out of a depression rut.


A very interesting article thank you Karen. I have a question…After7 years of going through family tragedies beginning with our Son Scott being murdered and all that followed, culminating in the very public trial of our ex son in law. So I understand about stress and the effects on our bodies but I would like to know about our body memory. Our lives have changed dramatically and a lot of good has come out of it. But Now I notice whenever there is stress or a stressful situation my body reacts the same way as it did through this period. Does that change over time? Id appreciate your thoughts. Thanks Jo

Karen Young

Joanne I’m sorry to hear that your family has been through this trauma. Here is an article that will hopefully explain why your body reacts the way it does It is an article about anxiety in children but the process is the same for adults. Read the section, ‘But what if anxiety just ‘happens’, without any obvious trigger or previous experience to explain avoidance.’ Your brain is open to change, and one of the ways to do this is to have a different experience under stress. You’ll need to be deliberate about this, and a way to start is to remember to breathe strong deep breaths when you feel the stress response. Strong deep breathing initiates the relaxation response. This will help to neutralise the neurochemicals that contribute to the feelings of stress and anxiety that happen when you are in situations. The more you do this, the more your brain will learn that the situation you are in is different to the situation that first initiated the stressful response. I would also really encourage you to get into a regular practice of mindfulness or meditation. Mindfulness has been proven by plenty of research to change the structure and function of the brain in really positive ways. Here is an article that talks how that works, and another one to talk about ways to practice mindfulness I hope these help. All the kindest wishes to you and your family.


What a brilliant article! Thank you for explaining the process of stress in this way. You help people see there is a way to be supported and to support others experiencing it.

Dr Leonard B Smith

Very interesting article!
I am a pediatric dentist and have been very active in treating children with early childhood caries formerly baby bottle decay.
It is now the most common chronic infectious disease in children 5 and younger in North America!According to the CDC,28% of all children have some form of ECC(5.6 million in North America) and 23% of those children or 1.3 million never receive oral health care!
These children and those who have treatment delayed are sleep deprived,malnourished,have elevated cortisol levels,iron deficiency or iron deficient anemia.
These children are neglected/abused.

Some live in dysfunctional home environments and include environments of domestic violence,all
of them contributing to the development of toxic stress!
This disease is overlooked as a serious variable impacting childrens development and this information needs to become widespread so this disease can be prevented at little or no cost if prevention begins at birth

Robert Olcott

Dr. Leonard Smith,
I wish my most recent dentist had known from my Primary Care physician that a significant percentage of PTSD suffers also contend with Temporomandibular Jaw (especially Croatian Veterans, according to a 2014 “Prevalence of Signs and Symptoms of Temporomandibular Disorder in Patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder”-ACTA STOMATOLOGICA CROATIA, and other publications). The design of my current dentures [with an ‘over-bite’], make them a challenge to use, as the [2 of 3] lower ‘anchor teeth’ have loosened….


The thing about this that really bothers me is why aren’t the children considered when the parents are being treated for different types of personality disorders and such? My Mom was totally nuts sometimes, and so was my brother, and My mom was being treated at the time for what she called her nerves. She was on medication but would run out and her I am, this little five year old bending over backward trying to calm her down, and my older brother was another story, he was seeing a psychiatrist at least once a week, he was in and out of reform schools for theft and destruction of property, and I”m this little girl who is doing her best to keep everyone on an even keel. Mom would wake me in the morning screaming frantically and standing over my bed because she couldnt find her damn shoes. And I’d wake up from a dead sleep and shake for hours after her tirade. And she totally depended on me to watch out for my brother, what are we going to do about brother she would ask me? And he was getting help from head doctors, but no one thought about me. And it just pisses me off so bad to think they knew how nuts they both were but didn’t stop to think what hell I was living in. And honestly, I don’t think it’s much better now in that respect. I guess that I was quiet and minded my teachers and didn’t cause any ripples so why would they even suspect that maybe I was being screwed up worse than the both of them. I don’t how many times I walked in on my brother and found him trying to kill himself, or self destructing with all the neighborhood watching, and they would call me to come calm him down. I was the only one who could get through to him. And I adored him with all my heart and he knew it. And I’m not saying all this for myself right now, I’ve worked through a lot of it, but i sure didn’t realize how much living in that hell could affect me as far as health goes. And in so many ways I won’t go into right now, it screwed every part of my life up in so many ways and it’s no wonder I ended up married to a man who doesn’t even love me but he said he tried. Where was that little girls help and what can we do to change this stuff? She didn’t have a choice, and she spent her whole life feeling inadequate and not worthy and scared of her own shadow, and still now is terrified of the dark, and can’t even make herself go outside when the sun goes down. And now, after all that hell, I have lost my husband, my best friend, and can barely leave my home because I don’t want to be a burden to someone by blurting out how bad I feel and how lost being here alone day in and day out and not one person to really give a shit. And you know what’s really sad, I lost my Mom a few years ago, and 6 months later my brother died too. So even in death he gets to have Mom, she loved him so much. He always came first with her to the point where she would take my one christmas present and give it to him, because he needed it worse than i did. And the guilt I felt for even resenting that. OH God I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to get on the pity pot here, I guess I just wish that things would change for another child that is living it now. And this is why I am not going to delete this. And I am giong to add just one more thing that I really hate to discuss but when I grew up, I got married at 15 years old, and had two children before I turned 1 and when my ex at the time and I split up, he told me I would have the kids over his dead body so iran. I left them there because I knew he would care for them, he had money, and I was still a child myself. And when I would get to see them, the pain was so unbearable when it was time to go, and they were being told so many bad things about me, not calling me mom anymore and telling me I was just their babysitter and hearing how they all got together and tore my picture out of any pictures they had, and I walked away. Because I knew if I kept trying to see them they would be constantly bombarded with stuff like that and it was hurting them so badly. I had to stay away. That’s what happens to the little quiet girl that doesn’t cause ripples, and just so you know, they are finally back in my life is a small way and they are awesome. And I am so grateful that they survived so healthy. So, I did something right. Thanks for reading this if you did.


Pam, I just want you to know that I read your post, every single word. And I am so sorry for all of it. Back then, there just wasn’t protection for us. No one understood what we were going through and what a ripple effect it would have. I don’t know what your beliefs are, but I have found so much solace in my relationship with God. If it weren’t for Him, I don’t know what I would have done. He brought me through and even now is so faithful to put me on a journey of healing. As I sought Him more, I could develop a relationship unlike any Inhad ever known. There is a global ministry known as Be in Health that has taught me so much, and I could finally begin to heal. I just wanted to share that with you and I pray many blessings for you as you continue this healing journey.


I can’t agree more. God Bless the teachers in our life right now. They’re providing my children the safe place that they aren’t yet (Still) getting from me. I had a traumatic childhood and am sensitive to the point of having been exposed to chronic stress, daily until I begged to leave for college where I became very ill with IC. Now living in a chronicle stressful marriage, I’m finally finished with trying to make it work. I will protect my children and try and help myself and them regardless of being a disabled single mom. A peaceful, chaos free home, I am hoping will make a difference along with therapy and Mindfulness practice for all of us. I see the stress in my children and I am becoming more sick than I ever thought possible.
It’s time to start living and flourishing not just surviving. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers and I pray for our societies children, the rageful and the quiet peace keepers.
I try to make a difference but I am afraid, a constant theme in my life, that I’ve let this go on too long. I hope I can save myself and children as my physical pain has not only manifested into physical disability but into a physical level of pain that keeps me from my kids. I hope as time away from the immediate stressor in my life, I will bounce back as I have before so that I can help undo what I’ve let happen to us. No more fear, no more, I am dying and I can’t let that happen. I won’t go out like that and I won’t ever stop helping myself and my children obtain the peace we all deserve. Mindfulness should be taught as a core curriculum to all our kids. There are new and exciting ways to reach children and show them this technique. Why can’t anyone grasp how important it is to protect ourselves from harm, mental and physical, as children? I want to bring this to our kids in every corner of every school. Life is the right to THRIVE, not just survive.


#5 Sounds like the generational effects of slavery on African-Americans honestly. So sad…


I really appreciate the info on toxic stress. I was a victim of severe sexual abuse for most of my childhood from my father, along with severe maternal depression and suicide attempts, among others. While diagnosed with ptsd recently, it didn’t answer the physical affects the stress had on me and my sisters like this article does. It wasn’t until my gynecologist did some digging, that we discovered that my cortisol levels must have been high for so long, (at which time I was always in ‘high alert’) that at the age of 28, they practically flatlined-fatigue to the extreme! At which point my body couldn’t handle the stress of watching an intense movie- I would be almost comatose after!

It all makes sense. I have a plethora of inflammatory conditions, auto immune conditions, my immune system is shot, migraines, IBS and my memory is worse than an 80 year old woman. (Besides the lifelong depression and and anxiety…of course) But I can’t complain since my sis has MS , and other sis has had multiple cancers since age 21.

I had never heard of ‘toxic stress’ before, but I am glad to have an article to share with friends and family to help them understand the tragic consequence of toxic stress.
Thank you!

Karen - Hey Sigmund

Rosa what you have described makes so much sense in the context of toxic stress. I’m so pleased the article has helped to make sense of things for you. Love and healing to you.


Hi Rosa,
I found this article so helpful to me as well. Totally putting into words what has gone on in me and the struggle that remains. I have found great solace in my relationship with God and He led me to a ministry known as Be in Health. It has impacted my life in a tremendous way and I have been finding great healing. God has been faithful to help me walk out of all that toxic stuff and He loves you just as much! Many blessings to you in your journey of overcoming!

Dr. Michele wolfson

What are the sources for your information? What is the date of this post? If I want to cite this article, I need more information.


Thank you so much. My memory and cognative function, i strongly believe, have been seriosuly impacted by the toxic environment i grew up in. What are some methods you suggest for this specific neurological damage?

Karen - Hey Sigmund

Here is a list of things that have been proven to strengthen the brain Mindfulness is an important one. If you can get into a regular routine of 20 minutes a day, even if you have to break it into 2 x 10 minute sessions, that would be a great thing to do. Here is some information about that Exercise is another important one, as well as connecting with other people. The brain strengthens through experience, so if it’s your memory or cognitive function that you are concerned about, find ways to practice that. Some examples of how to do this might include memory games (such as through apps), or word games or number games that will exercise the problem solving, working memory etc part of your brain.


Outstanding job of breaking down esoteric psych terms into actionable cause/effect I can grasp. As a 60 year old, I’ve finally made that ah ha moment why I still from chronic adversity. Unfortunately, I grew up in some very adverse conditions, seen how I’m to blame for setting same toxic environment with own kids, and see it all happening again with my grandchildren, Sad, the legacy could not be stopped, and wish there was something I could do now to help – talk about learned helplessness. I suffer fro migraines, allergies, arthritis, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. My massage lady is amazed to how tight all my muscles are clenched. I need help – this article and leads to others will help me focus on where to get some much needed help. Thanks again

Karen - Hey Sigmund

Eddy I’m so pleased this article has been helpful for you. You sound as though you have so much awareness now. In time, hopefully the generations that come after you will be able to share in this awareness, even if it is by watching the new way you relate to the world, or by seeing the long term impact that your own difficult upbringing has had on you. I can hear how open you are to finding the support you need. Keep being open to this and keep focusing on moving forward, and the support will come. All the best to you.

patrick heffernan

I have emotional energy stuck in my head through meditation and big break up with wife. it has created a toxic environment an d lots of confusion maybe even demesntia involve this trapped energy drives me bonkers it dwont move out of my hsead due to blockages I am finding it hard now ti mix with people are uffering and trying to find ways through it


Hi Patrick.
I know someone who explains he has the similar symptoms. I helped him release this type of blockage, because it started from his childhood. We used hypnotherapy and also cognitive behavioural therapy. These blockages occur when the meditation is powering up the negative emotions. It also depends on the style of meditation. The safest style is the one where you use the focus point in the main dan tien, just below & behind the belly button. There is an energy centre there. Try to acknowledge all the negative thoughts and let them go before you meditate so you can stop adding to the negative energy in your brain. This is common, it often happens for people in spiritual practise who have a trauma. Try seeing a psychotherapist and use CBT for the negative thinking from traumatic events (such as relationship breakdown, and childhood history being the original stressor). Also get some hypnotherapy. As well, get some tests on gut health. My friend and I have both studied meditation and martial arts for a long time from the same teacher and this problem for him came up a few yeas into his training. It turned out he had childhood trauma and his constant trying to block out the memories was causing him to create a memory issue. My friend had acupuncture and took traditional Chinese medicine for recovery along with dietary changes, cognitive behavioural therapy and hypnotherapy. It all makes a big difference. I really hope you unravel the issue, because it is a possibility to recover. You just need a few different types of help as you go. You may also need to change the style of meditation you do, or hold off doing any until you can change some of your unconscious beliefs. Good luck!

Carol Ann

My background is in elem. educ. and, then as a Rdg Specialist – helping those that struggle most with learning. You article is right on target.

I retired early because of unmitigated stress in my career (perhaps some of us just sponge up the stress and have more difficulty releasing it). Now, I’m dealing with the physical results of years of constant stress (not just the job) and it is perplexing/ frustrating. Plus, I’m still having a hard time de-stressing, I will admit. Would I seek help from an endocrinologist, internist, rheumatologist, psychiatrist, other, all? Thank you for sharing your knowledge to benefit others. 😉

Karen - Hey Sigmund

Yes absolutely – some of us are more vulnerable to taking on stress from a stressful environment. The specialist would depend on whatever it is you’re struggling with. A doctor should be able to guide you in relation to your physical health, and a counsellor should be able to help you to manage or let go of the stress that might be driving your symptoms.

Suzy D

Agreed, this is a fabulously written article, and has made sense of so many things. I’ve had an autoimmune condition for the last 10 years, and I have since learnt and now believe that I caused it via my inability to process the ongoing stress & anxiety throughout my life … But, the part I love is, the hope I have that, if I can create this illness, I CAN also heal it … and thats the path I’m now on, and sites like this are all playing a vital role in that, for me … So thank you!

Hey Sigmund

You’re very welcome Suzy. I’m so pleased the article has helped. It sounds as though you have found a strong path towards healing. Keep going!

Zequek Estrada

I kind of find it a little scary how much stress can affect our lives. It kind of makes me wish people were more aware of these six ways of to buffer the effects. It might also be helpful to get involved with a stress management program.


wow just what i needed to read – have been worrying about my grandchilds homelife but reading about how one person can make a big difference to the life of a child in a difficult situation made me cry!

Hey Sigmund

Elaine I’m so pleased this article found its way to you. Yes – absolutely! One person can make a monumental difference in a child’s life. You can’t always change the things that happen, but never underestimate your capacity to change the course of a child’s life by being a strong, loving, supportive presence.


Elaine, my home life was physically emotionally and verbally abusive. My grandpa picked me up from school everyday and I ate a burger and did homework with him until 6 pm. He was my respite and time of sanity. I have lots of physical ailments today-pain, autoimmune-however my relationships with people and my confidence wasn’t hurt as it would have been because he was there telling me the behavior toward me was wrong, that m mom loved me butvwas not we’ll in the noggin, and giving me perspective and giving me the role model and option to another way of being.

Ron mcd

This is such a well written article re: the harmful effects of stress on brain circuitry, endocrine and immune systems. I firmly believe a person who is able to embrace and maintain a yoga practice there is positive change, especially as we learn to love ourselves back to life.


As a recently retired teacher suffering from chronic stress this article touched me deeply. The students need support to cope with their stressful situations. The teachers need recognition and support in their roles as mentors for stressed kids. Why can’t American society realize the value of teachers?We have so much responsibility,and the power to change things around but we are so abused in the process. I was defeated in my quest to do the right thing. Thanks for validating me, my intentions were right.

Hey Sigmund

Angela I absolutely agree with you. One teacher can change the life of a child – I’ve seen it happen over and over again. I think many people realise the value of teachers, but there are so many of us who do and who are deeply grateful for the work you do to shape the young lives you have in your hands. Teachers have such a vital role, not just in the academics but in helping kids to be the best version of themselves that they can be. I’m sorry there were people around you who didn’t recognise and support you in this. It was their great failing. I have no doubt you would have made a difference regardless.


You know, we spend so much time learning how to best help students. But, nothing is done to be sure WE are taken care of. Richard Brandon Ceo of all the Virgin company says, ” Take care of your employees and they’ll take care of your customers.”
I just resigned from teaching after 35 years. I’ve always felt loved, supported, and respected. I KNOW I’ve made an impact on my kiddos. I have so, so many as FB friend’s and Instagram. They found me! In 2007, we moved to a hateful, ugly town and school district. The first few years (maybe 5) were fine. However, the past 5 years have been hell. I’ve fought for right, my health has declined significantly, and I have been taken from a stellar, award winning teacher, to someone who feels totally worthless. All of this was at the hands of a screwed up district… 3 superientdents in 10 years. A new principal who is not prepared for her job, and takes it out on us. No one will speak up. I’ve spent 2 years talking to our asst super. She talked big, but nothing changed. She caved and did nothing. Teaching is my passion. I love my kids, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. Now, I feel like a loser for quitting, and have to find a new job, when all I’ve ever done is teach. Our job is so important, but we are treated like trash. Makes me cry!

Robert Olcott

I hear your ‘frustration’, If my previous reply doesn’t address part of your concerns:
If it might help the voters in your school district to see the benefits of NEA’s new ‘Trauma-Informed’ policy, as well as James [Robert’s son] Redford’s directed film titled “Paper Tigers”, filming actual students at Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington, and the Principal’s “Feel Wheel”….

Robert Olcott

I hope my reply will benefit not only all teachers, especially those who experience ‘vicarious’ trauma-themselves, in caring for the students in our schools, but ‘First-Responders’, Jurors, etc.. An Epidemiologist who presented a “Grand Rounds” continuing ‘medical education’ presentation, at [then Dartmouth. now] Geisel Medical School, in 2000, noted: “52% of Detroit Metropolitan Area SCHOOLCHILDREN met the [then] DSM-IV criteria for PTSD”. Similar numbers have more recently been reported in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Atlanta. Last I checked, the On-Site Academy provides Crisis-Respite services to both ‘First Responders’ and ‘Human Services Personnel’, not only within the United States, but now ‘world-wide’. They may benefit from having ‘scholarships’ to cover their [crisis-respite] costs. Since the ‘trauma-Informed Intentional [Police] Peer Support programs of Boston, Cambridge, and some other Massachusetts North Shore Police departments have affiliated with the On-Site Academy, it may prove helpful for other ‘Professions’, like Teachers, to develop similar “[trauma-informed] Intentional Peer Support programs offered [world-wide] by “Intentional Peer Support” of the Burlington, Vermont area, or the On-Site Academy in Gardner, Massachusetts (whose Crisis-Respite program has moved to a ‘Farm’ in an abutting rural town.)


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Separation anxiety can come with a tail whip - not only does it swipe at kids, but it will so often feel brutal for their important adults too.

If your child struggle to separate at school, or if bedtimes tougher than you’d like them to be, or if ‘goodbye’ often come with tears or pleas to stay, or the ‘fun’ from activities or play dates get lost in the anxiety of being away from you, I hear you.

There’s a really good reason for all of these, and none of them have anything to do with your parenting, or your child not being ‘brave enough’. Promise. And I have something for you. 

My 2 hour on-demand separation anxiety webinar is now available for purchase. 

This webinar is full of practical, powerful strategies and information to support your young person to feel safer, calmer, and braver when they are away from you. 

We’ll explore why separation anxiety happens and powerful strategies you can use straight away to support your child. Most importantly, you’ll be strengthening them in ways that serve them not just for now but for the rest of their lives.

Access to the recording will be available for 30 days from the date of purchase.

Link to shop in bio.
The more we treat anxiety as a problem, or as something to be avoided, the more we inadvertently turn them away from the safe, growthful, brave things that drive it. 

On the other hand, when we make space for anxiety, let it in, welcome it, be with it, the more we make way for them to recognise that anxiety isn’t something they need to avoid. They can feel anxious and do brave. 

As long as they are safe, let them know this. Let them see you believing them that this feels big, and believing in them, that they can handle the big. 

‘Yes this feels scary. Of course it does - you’re doing something important/ new/ hard. I know you can do this. How can I help you feel brave?’♥️
I’ve loved working with @sccrcentre over the last 10 years. They do profoundly important work with families - keeping connections, reducing clinflict, building relationships - and they do it so incredibly well. @sccrcentre thank you for everything you do, and for letting me be a part of it. I love what you do and what you stand for. Your work over the last decade has been life-changing for so many. I know the next decade will be even more so.♥️

In their words …
Posted @withregram • @sccrcentre Over the next fortnight, as we prepare to mark our 10th anniversary (28 March), we want to re-share the great partners we’ve worked with over the past decade. We start today with Karen Young of Hey Sigmund.

Back in 2021, when we were still struggling with covid and lockdowns, Karen spoke as part of our online conference on ‘Strengthening the relationship between you & your teen’. It was a great talk and I’m delighted that you can still listen to it via the link in the bio.

Karen also blogged about our work for the Hey Sigmund website in 2018. ‘How to Strengthen Your Relationship With Your Children and Teens by Understanding Their Unique Brain Chemistry (by SCCR)’, which is still available to read - see link in bio.

#conflictresolution #conflict #families #family #mediation #earlyintervention #decade #anniversary #digital #scotland #scottish #cyrenians #psychology #relationships #children #teens #brain #brainchemistry #neuroscience
I often go into schools to talk to kids and teens about anxiety and big feelings. 

I always ask, ‘Who’s tried breathing through big feels and thinks it’s a load of rubbish?’ Most of them put their hand up. I put my hand up too, ‘Me too,’ I tell them, ‘I used to think the same as you. But now I know why it didn’t work, and what I needed to do to give me this powerful tool (and it’s so powerful!) that can calm anxiety, anger - all big feelings.’

The thing is though, all powertools need a little instruction and practice to use them well. Breathing is no different. Even though we’ve been breathing since we were born, we haven’t been strong breathing through big feelings. 

When the ‘feeling brain’ is upset, it drives short shallow breathing. This is instinctive. In the same ways we have to teach our bodies how to walk, ride a bike, talk, we also have to teach our brains how to breathe during big feelings. We do this by practising slow, strong breathing when we’re calm. 

We also have to make the ‘why’ clear. I talk about the ‘why’ for strong breathing in Hey Warrior, Dear You Love From Your Brain, and Ups and Downs. Our kids are hungry for the science, and they deserve the information that will make this all make sense. Breathing is like a lullaby for the amygdala - but only when it’s practised lots during calm.♥️
When it’s time to do brave, we can’t always be beside them, and we don’t need to be. What we can do is see them and help them feel us holding on, even in absence, while we also believe in their brave.♥️

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