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Understanding Toxic Stress 

Feb 28, 2020    |   Early Childhood Mental Health

Toxic stress is a term that is being widely discussed among early learning professionals, as researchers and educators seek greater understanding that will lead to better ways to support children and their developing brains.

Utilizing data provided by The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, an organization that has conducted extensive research on toxic stress, Good2Know Network takes a look at the impact toxic stress can have on the children in your care and on your work as an educator.

An Introduction to Toxic Stress

Learning to cope with adversity to develop a healthy stress response system is an important component of early childhood development. Exposure to some stress is a normal and predictable part of life. Young children who have the support of a positive relationship with an adult learn to cope with stressful experiences when they are young, and to respond effectively to the challenges and struggles they will face as they grow older.

Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child reports that in the absence of a supportive caregiver relationship, when a child is exposed to extreme, long-lasting stress “the result can be damaged, weakened systems and brain architecture, with lifelong repercussions.” For more details, check out the video below.



The 3 Kinds of Stress

When we think about stress, it is important to differentiate stress that is helpful and stress that is harmful. If some stress can be positive for development, when does it become too much? When does stress become toxic?

There are actually three different kinds of stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. The type of stress is determined largely by two factors:  the longevity of exposure to stress and whether or not a supportive adult is present in a child’s life. When children do not have an adult to provide comfort and help them cope, it can damage their developing brains and put their long-term health at risk. Here’s how Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child defines each type of stress:

  • Positive stress response is a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunization.

  • Tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs can recover from what might otherwise be damaging to the child.

  • Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, increasing the risk of stress-related disease and cognitive impairment into the adult years.

Efforts to Address Toxic Stress in California

Last year, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris was sworn into office as California’s first Surgeon General. Dr. Burke Harris is a national leader in pediatric health and trauma who has dedicated most of her work to addressing toxic stress. In her recent Health Policy Lecture at UCSF, Dr. Burke Harris shared that she has a big goal as surgeon general: to cut toxic stress and ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) in half within one generation.

To help with this effort, in January the UCSF Center to Advance Trauma-informed Healthcare (CTHC) signed a $10.7 million contract with the California Office of the Surgeon General and the Department of Health Care Services to lead a learning and quality collaborative that will share tools and best practices to help providers treat those who have been exposed to trauma and adversity. The collaborative will inform and develop practices that will support a statewide training initiative.

Resources for Further Exploration

If you are interested in learning more about toxic stress and what is happening in the state of California, check out the articles below.

  • What We Can Do About Toxic Stress: This infographic from The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, shares how communities can work together to share the load of toxic stress and help victims of trauma build resilience.

  • Toxic Stress Exposure in Childhood Linked to Risky Behavior, Adult Disease: This article, from Yale News, explores some of the long-term consequences of toxic stress, while also sharing intervention and prevention strategies as to combat these health risks.

  • Social and Behavioral Determinants of Toxic Stress: This talk, by David Williams of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, looks at the social and behavioral factors that play a role in triggering toxic stress for children and adults. He also discusses effective solutions for reducing toxic stress and improving health.

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