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Toxic Stress Changes Our Biology
“Most of us – no matter who we are or where we come from – have experienced some level of adversity in our lives. However, there are wide ranges in the type, severity and frequency of adversity. If it is severe or chronic, it can cause changes to our bodies and may lead to significant health problems. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are stressful or traumatic events that children experience before age 18, such as violence at home, neglect, abuse, or having a parent with mental illness or substance dependence. High or frequent exposure to ACEs, without the buffering support of a caring adult, can dysregulate children’s stress response. What is unhealthy or “toxic” stress in children? Normal, positive stress can be anxiety associated with everyday experiences like getting frustrated, starting at a new daycare or getting shots at the doctor’s. A child’s body releases emergency stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which causes her heart to quicken and her eyes to dilate. Normal stress is part of a child’s healthy development. When activated occasionally, this “fight or flight” system bypasses the logical decision-making part of our brain – the prefrontal cortex – and activates the primitive reactions that can protect us from threats. In occasional situations like this, stress is helpful. However, a problem occurs when our system is always “on” – overtaxed by repeated, intense, or chronic stress. The cascade of chemicals and reactions can go from protecting our lives to damaging our health. If left unaddressed, toxic stress can negatively affect a developing body and brain by disrupting learning, behavior, immunity, growth, and even the way DNA is read and transcribed. Children exposed to ACEs are more likely to develop learning difficulties and other health problems like asthma or sleep disturbances. They may also have difficulty sitting still in school or controlling emotions in challenging situations. If left untreated, toxic stress can lead to lifelong health problems like heart disease or cancer. It also can lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, or suicide.”