NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, March 17, 2024

What is Toxic Stress?

Stress is a common response to daily experiences in life--both positive and negative.  It can be beneficial when it motivates you to make positive changes in your life.  

What is Toxic Stress?

However, when stress is chronic and overwhelming and you don't have internal resources or emotional support to deal with stress, it can become toxic stress (see my article: Responding Instead of Reacting to Stress).

This article will focus on the connection between toxic and trauma as it begins in early childhood and continues into adulthood (see my article: Stress Management: Taking Time For Self Care).

What Are the Different Types of Stress?
  • Positive Stress: Positive stress is also known as eustress. Positive stress responses are normal responses to infrequent, short lived and mild stressful experiences. During childhood, if a child is given emotional support to deal with positive stress, the child develops motivation and resilience.  Over time, as a child develops skills to deal with positive stressors, the child also develops self confidence.  Examples of positive stress for children include:
    • Meeting new people
    • Learning a new task
    • Learning a new game or hobby
  • Tolerable Stress: Tolerable stress is more frequent, sustained and severe.  Tolerable stress has more of an impact on the mind and body as compared to positive stress. With emotional support, once the tolerable stress is removed, a child's mind and body usually return to their normal level of functioning.  Examples of tolerable stress for children include:
    • Parental divorce
    • Death of a loved one
  • Toxic Stress: Toxic stress often begins in childhood where prolonged exposure to stress has a damaging effect on a child's mind and body. When children are exposed to unrelenting stress without emotional support, the mind and body are often unable to recover. Toxic stress is related to adverse childhood experiences (see below) also known as ACEs. Examples of toxic stress include:
What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are potentially traumatic events, as mentioned above, that occur in childhood (ages 0-17 years) that can result in toxic stress.

Toxic stress related to ACEs can result in health and mental health problems especially if these experiences are unmitigated by emotional support from loved ones.

How Common Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?
Unfortunately, ACEs are common.

Adverse Childhood Experiences and Toxic Stress

Approximately 64% of adults reported they had at least one experience with ACEs and about 17.3% of adults reported having four or more experiences as children with ACEs. 

All children are potentially at risk for ACEs, but ACEs are more likely to occur with girls, racial minorities and in families where adults are unemployed or unable to work.

What is the Effect of ACEs and Toxic Stress?
Without emotional support ACEs and toxic stress can result in one or more of the following problems:
  • Permanent damaging effects to brain architecture
  • Epigenetic change alteration (modifications to DNA which determine whether genes are turned on or off)
  • Long term health consequences, including
    • Immune dysregulation
    • Persistent inflammatory state and health conditions related to inflammation
    • Increased risk for cancer and heart disease
    • Other chronic health problems
    • Long term mental health consequences, including:
      • Anxiety
      • Depression
      • Emotional dysregulation
      • Other mental health problems
    How Do ACEs and Toxic Stress Effect Adults?
    Adults who grew up exposed to ACEs without emotional support are more likely to get into unhealthy relationships.

    Toxic Stress and Adult Relationship Problems

    Without emotional and mental health support, this can have a traumatic intergenerational traumatic impact where one generation after the next form unstable relationships.

    Adults who experienced ACEs as children have an increased risk for having an unstable work history, financial problems, debt and other related problems.

    How to Reduce the Risk of ACEs and Toxic Stress
    Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are preventable.  

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the national public health agency for the U.S.  It is a federal agency under the Health and Human Services Department.

    The CDC recommends the following steps to prevent ACEs:
    • Strengthening family financial security
    • Implementing family-friendly work policies
    • Promoting public education campaigns to educate people about ACEs
    • Promoting legislative approaches to reduce corporal punishment
    • Promoting bystander approaches
    • Promoting men and boys as allies in prevention
    • Implementing early childhood programs to ensure a strong start for children
    • Implementing high quality child care
    • Promoting preschool enrichment with family involvement
    • Teaching social-emotional learning
    • Teaching safe dating and relationship skills
    • Teaching parenting and healthy family relationship skills
    • Developing mentor programs
    • Developing after school programs
    • Developing enhanced primary care
    • Developing victim-centered services
    • Developing treatment approaches to reduce the harm of ACEs
    • Developing treatment to prevent problem behavior and future involvement in violence
    • Developing family-centered treatment for substance abuse
    Getting Help in Therapy
    As an adult, if you have been impacted by toxic stress, you could benefit from seeking help in therapy.

    Getting Help in Therapy

    Working with a skilled psychotherapist, who has an expertise with toxic stress and trauma, can help you to overcome the damaging effects of toxic stress.

    Rather than struggling on your own, seek help from a qualified mental health professional.

    About Me
    I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

    As a trauma therapist, I have helped many individual adults and couples overcome the impact of toxic stress and trauma.

    To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

    To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.