Toxic Stress: Effects on Our Health and Mental Health

TOXIC STRESS: The biological response to severe and/or repeated adversity absent the buffering support from a caring and trusted adult. Stress-health.org

Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, like science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa before her (Childhood Disrupted), has written a book about how ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) affect our development. The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity (2018) covers the gamut of possible physical, emotional, and behavioral responses.

Some ACEs statistics courtesy of interviews with Harris:

Two-thirds of Americans have been exposed to one significant adverse childhood experience, and between 13 and 17 percent have been exposed to four or more. We know that being exposed to high doses of childhood adversity dramatically increases the risk for seven of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States. (New York Times)

An individual with four or more ACEs is 10 times more likely to be an IV drug user as someone with no ACEs. (New York Times)

…For depression, it was 4.5 times. For suicidality, it was 12 times. (NPR)

As explained in her NPR interview, how you might envision the physiological effects of toxic stress:

Well, imagine you’re walking in the forest, and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, release stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol. And so your heart starts to pound. Your pupils dilate. Your airways open up. And you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest, and there’s a bear. But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night. And this system is activated over and over and over again.

What can help to offset ACEs? New York Times interview excerpt:

One of the key ingredients for keeping the body’s stress response out of the toxic stress zone is the presence of a healthy buffering caregiver. So we need to educate parents and caregivers about the impact a child’s environment and exposures may be having on their health. We also know that if a caregiver is able to self-regulate, their kids have much better outcomes. Good old-fashioned mental health care really does help. In research studies, certain types of interventions, including child-parent psychotherapy, can help to normalize cortisol levels and get the body’s stress response back on track.

But now here you are as an adult: you’ve gotten your own ACE quiz score, and you want to know what you can do. Some suggestions: regular physical exercise, a healthy dose of sleep, and meditation.

Selected Reviews of The Deepest Well

Kirkus Reviews: “In this powerful debut, the author describes the medical research and recalls her own frontline experiences as a pioneer in the treatment of toxic stress as CEO of San Francisco’s Center for Youth Wellness, which offers multidisciplinary care for children suffering from trauma. ‘The body remembers,’ she writes. ‘Twenty years of medical research has shown that childhood adversity literally gets under our skin, changing people in ways that can endure in their bodies for decades’.”

Ashley Judd, actor/author: “…My Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) test result is a nine out of ten. When I needed it, one person extended the hand of hope and help to me. It saved me. This book has the power to extend that hand to countless others.”

J.D. Vance, author: “a heartbreaking, beautiful book about what might be the most important single issue facing our country’s disadvantaged populations: the prevalence of childhood trauma…(A) gripping book that should convince everyone that we have a serious problem, and that unless we address it the losers will be our nation’s children.”

Harris’s 2014 TED talk:

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