Toxic stress. Focus on the “toxic”.


I will start this post by quoting the first paragraph of a recent NY Times Commentary by David Bornstein as I think there can be no better introduction to this subject as this (not by me in any case!)

Imagine if scientists discovered a toxic substance that increased the risks of cancer, diabetes and heart, lung and liver disease for millions of people. Something that also increased one’s risks for smoking, drug abuse, suicide, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, domestic violence and depression — and simultaneously reduced the chances of succeeding in school, performing well on a job and maintaining stable relationships? It would be comparable to hazards like lead paint, tobacco smoke and mercury. We would do everything in our power to contain it and keep it far away from children. Right?.

Well, there is such a thing, but it’s not a substance. It’s been called “toxic stress.”

Stress is bad for you. Stress will kill you. We have all at least heard that, if not said it ourselves. It seems to me we have heard it so many times that we do not even take it seriously anymore. Sometimes it even seems to me that if you are not stressed you would be taken for a lazy, non-ambitious and at the end non-worthy members of the society. Perhaps this is due to the fact that we do not always differentiate between good stress and bad stress. And we also forget that apart from our adult stress related to job, family etc, children can also be subjected to stress. Stress that can be positive and/or tolerable, which is not necessarily bad; and stress which can be toxic. Now that’s a word that might attract more attention. Which is a good thing, as the effects of toxic stress can be devastating to children.

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “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 kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years”.  Starting from the ACE study, conducted between 1995 and 1997, a lot has been published on different associations between toxic stress and childhood development. We recently also published a systematic review and meta-analysis on the association between sexual and physical abuse in childhood and depression and anxiety in adulthood. This systematic review by Jutta Lindert and colleagues found high levels of depression, anxiety and distress in adults exposed to childhood sexual and physical abuse.

So what can we do to make sure that children are protected? CDC provides a summary of possible strategies , including parent and child education, screening ans treatment strategies, parent-child centers, home visits and public awareness campaigns. In a previous post we talked about the importance of early childhood sensory stimulation can affect development; it seems, however, that protecting brains -not simply stimulating them– is also very important.

Please visit the Center on the Developing Child website for very (and many) useful resources (including multimedia) on the subject and make sure you share your opinion with us!


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