Health & Well-Being: Promoting well-being - toxic stress

Toxic stress in childhood occurs when children face severe, prolonged or repeated adverse events without the support of a caregiver to help them develop a normal stress response.

Educational, behavioural and health development can all be endangered by the repeated or extreme activation of stress response systems in the body and brain.

When threatened, our bodies respond by increasing heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones such as cortisol. When a young child’s stress response systems are activated within an environment of supportive relationships, these responses are significantly reduced, allowing healthy stress response systems to develop. However, if the stress response is extreme and recurring, and positive adult relationships are unavailable, the result can be lifelong damage to brain architecture and other organ systems.

Responding to stress

There are three kinds of responses to stress: positive, tolerable and toxic.

Positive stress response is a normal part of healthy development. It may create brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels in situations such as the first day at nursery or getting an immunisation.

Tolerable stress response is the result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as a bereavement or frightening injury. As long as the response is time-limited and supported by positive adult relationships which help the child adapt, the brain and other organs can recover without any damaging effects.

Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent or prolonged adversity, such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, economic hardship or exposure to violence, without adequate adult support. This prolonged activation of stress response systems can disrupt development and increase the risk of stress-related disease and cognitive impairment well into adulthood.

Adapted from guidance by the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, https://developingchild.harvard.edu

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