What is toxic stress and how does it differ from “ordinary” stress? Everyone’s life has some level of stress. Work demands, family responsibilities, financial pressures, and interpersonal relationships all take a toll on us, ultimately leading to stress from time to time. In fact, there are many types of stress, including toxic and emotional stress.
Keep in mind, though, that not all stress is bad stress. Some short-term stress can even be beneficial (yes, really), giving us the energy and gumption to tackle difficult projects and situations. Extreme stress, however, extended over a long period, can be toxic and lead to an increased risk of developing many health issues like heart disease.
Toxic stress syndrome refers to stress strong enough to trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response, extended over days, weeks, months, and even years. This type of stress overwhelms you, leaving you feeling afraid and helpless. Fortunately, there are stress therapy options available to help process and cope with it.
Situations that might cause toxic stress include living in an unsafe environment or having a history of abuse and/or neglect that causes extreme anxiety or fear. Toxic stress is especially damaging to children, as they have fewer coping skills to help them deal with their stress.
“Since COVID, we’ve learned to be more tenacious in our resilience, but recognizing the signs of toxic and chronic stress is vitally important as a way to not only maintain good health, but also to endure relationships. Remembering your baseline for physical health can help you more readily recognize when your concentration begins to wane, and your body feels worn out and fatigued. Difficulty sleeping and compromised nutrition can also be red flags for the wear and tear of persistent stress and the need to address it.”
The Threshold of Stress
Not all stress is toxic. Many experts divide stress into three categories — positive, tolerable, and toxic.
- Positive stress is stress that’s short-lived and has mild effects, like an elevated heart rate and stress hormone levels. Examples of positive stress include:
- Anxiety about new situations
- Tolerable stress involves serious, temporary stress response, but differs from toxic stress in that you have a healthy support system and coping tools you know how to use. Examples of tolerable stress include:
- Serious illness
- Death in the family
- Toxic stress lasts for a prolonged period of time, without healthy relationships and stress management techniques to support and protect you. Examples of toxic stress include:
- Domestic violence exposure
- Extreme poverty
How stress becomes toxic
To truly be able to answer the question “what is toxic stress,” it’s important to discuss how stress becomes toxic in the first place. Ordinary stress can develop into toxic stress syndrome when it continues over time and without an adequate support system in place.
This syndrome is incredibly damaging to young children. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, toxic stress can happen when young children go through prolonged, frequent adverse childhood experience while lacking support or any protective factor. For example:
- Chronic neglect
- Being exposed to violence
- Financial hardship
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Physical abuse
- Child abuse
- Substance abuse by a caregiver
- Mental health struggles by a caregiver
Signs of Toxic Stress
Toxic stress affects the body in many ways. Some toxic stress syndrome symptoms in adults to look out for include:
- High hormone activity — the body’s “fight or flight” hormone, cortisol, elevates blood pressure and, over time, can lead to adverse changes in inflammation and immunity. This sign of toxic stress syndrome in adults can contribute to heart disease and chronic high blood pressure.
- Physical pain, such as headaches and gastrointestinal distress — prolonged stress has been linked to chronic migraine and/or ulcers.
- Sleep disturbances and nightmares — can lead to problems with attention and focus as well as anxiety.
- Social withdrawal
- Impulsive and risky behavior
There are additional signs of toxic stress in children, such as:
- Rebellion and defiance
- Doing poorly in school
- Aggressive behavior and fighting (especially in teens and older children)
- Cutting and self-destructive behavior (especially in teens and older children)
The Negative Effects of Toxic Stress
The negative effects of toxic stress syndrome are many. In children, it can lead to difficulty with concentration, focus, and learning. It might also cause brain development issues and have potential heart and immune system complications. In adults, prolonged stress can contribute to chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, a weakened immune system or mental health conditions.
Toxic stress also makes someone more likely to abuse drugs and/or alcohol, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Children who experience a neglectful or abusive home environment that results in toxic stress are more likely to become involved in an abusive relationship as adults.
“Toxic stress messages our brains and bodies to stay heightened, alert, and to remain in a fight or flight response. It can harken our physiology to be ridden with excess cortisol, our body’s stress hormone. It can be hard to work through, especially if you have been persistently exposed to stressful experiences for a prolonged period in your life while also having risk factors, including a vulnerable environment. Professional talk therapy, group therapy, and medical support are beneficial modalities, alone or used together, that can help instill hope, coping, and better management of stress to ensure more healthy living and improved emotional regulation.”
How to Prevent Stress from Becoming Toxic
Fortunately, there are some ways to prevent stress from evolving into toxic stress syndrome. If you notice any toxic stress syndrome symptoms in adults or children around you, or if you’re experiencing any of them yourself, try the following stress-relieving tactics.
1. Take care of yourself. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a balanced diet will go a long way toward combating stress and boosting immunity.
2. Forge healthy relationships. Having a good support system with positive friends and family members is, arguably, one of the best things you can do to fight the effects of toxic stress syndrome.
3. Focus on things you can control. Feeling out of control contributes to stress. Instead of dwelling on stressful events, focus on positive things in your life and take action where you can. For example, if you’re concerned about money, create a savings plan to prepare for the future. If you’re grieving or stressed about a death in the family or a divorce, therapy can help you recover from your loss. If you’re struggling in a relationship, lean on the people in your life who are positive and you can trust.
When to seek therapy
While a little stress can be a great motivator, it’s time to seek help when stress is adversely affecting your life. If you notice symptoms of toxic stress in yourself, your child, or someone you love, therapy can help you find the root cause of the stress and teach skills to help alleviate the effects.
The first step can be visiting your primary care physician. They should be able to give you a recommendation for a therapist who has experience dealing with toxic stress. If you don’t have a primary care physician, you can ask a friend or family member or look online for a recommendation.
Talkspace is an excellent resource if you’re looking for therapy that’s affordable, convenient, and effective. Our online therapy platform makes therapy accessible, so you can get support and coping tools to manage toxic stress syndrome. With Talkspace, you can find healthy alternatives that allow you to live a peaceful, happy life without the high stress levels.
1. A Guide to Toxic Stress. Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress. Accessed July 1, 2022.
2. Maleki N, Becerra L, Borsook D. Migraine: Maladaptive Brain Responses to Stress. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. 2012;52:102-106. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.2012.02241.x. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3475609/. Accessed July 1, 2022.
3. Megha R, Farooq U, Lopez P. Stress-Induced Gastritis. StatPearls. 2022. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499926/. Accessed July 1, 2022.
4. Schaeffer, MS, LMFT B. What You Should Know About Toxic Stress. Nami.org. https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/August-2017/What-You-Should-Know-About-Toxic-Stress. Published 2017. Accessed July 1, 2022.