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Toxic Stress’ Effect On the Mind and Body

Stress is part of the human condition whether the source of stress is financial troubles, divorce, abuse or neglect, death of a loved one, poverty, violence or external situations like a pandemic. Stress, or the “fight or flight” response, is a set of physiological responses to a stimulus. There are three widely accepted types of stress: positive stress, tolerable stress and toxic stress. 

NAMI defines toxic stress as “an experience that overwhelms us, sometimes making us feel like we are in serious danger. It can leave us feeling powerless and hopeless. And we may not have the coping skills or support we would need to fully deal with it.” What makes toxic stress so damaging is how severe the experiences are over a prolonged period. Exposure to toxic stress has detrimental consequences that affect both physical and mental health over short and long-terms. Although children are more likely to experience toxic stress, adults are not immune to it or its affects. 

Research found that toxic stress is capable of changing brain structures. This is because when under stress, the body is flooded with stress-related chemicals. When this flooding happens regularly, the brain and body change to more quickly respond to this danger-survival cycle and will flood with stress-related chemicals at the slightest hint of a threat. The change in children is even more dramatic. Research by Harvard University found "the more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and later health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, substance abuse, and depression.” These problems aren’t only physical, but can lead to behavioral problems. Research found that These adverse health effects include maladaptive coping skills, poor stress management, unhealthy lifestyles, mental illness and physical disease.” NAMI lists some other possible behavioral issues:

  • One study found that 96.4% of psychiatrically hospitalized adolescents have a history of lifetime physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse.

  • 8 in 10 incarcerated women have a history with physical and/or sexual abuse.

  • A child that had experienced at least four toxically stressful events was 15 times more likely to attempt suicide, 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, and 4 times more likely to become an alcoholic or intravenous drug user.

Clearly toxic stress is a major issue. But the good news is the negative effects can be reversed. Harvard research “indicates that supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response.” NAMI also found that “The good news is that when a person is no longer exposed to constant experiences of threat and toxic stress, the brain can rest and begin to rebuild itself in healthier ways. The brain is capable of healing itself. The brain has the potential to make new cells and create new connections—most effectively through safe, compassionate relationships with others. Anyone (child or adult) can develop a secure attachment with a caring individual that has his or her best interest in mind. This can happen at any time. For this reason, health care professionals, mental health providers, educators, faith-based workers, and peer relationships are critically important to building resiliency to toxic stress.”

With help from poverty fighters like Community Action agencies and their partners, we can help alleviate the negative impacts of toxic stress for both children and adults. 

Want to Help Us End Toxic Stress For Thousands of People?

  • Donate | We use your money to help run our programs, and provide training that helps organizations and individuals make their way to self-sufficiency. You can donate on our web page or find an agencies local to you.

  • Volunteer | We can’t do this alone. Join us! Find one of our agencies in your county and check out their website for volunteer opportunities.

  • Become a Member | Did you know you can become a Community Action Member? Membership provides discounted tickets to our various events, an inside look into our organization and more. Membership fees start at only $25 a year for an individual, or $300 for an agency.

  • Partner with Us | We are humbled by the many non-profit and for-profit organizations that partner with us to bring services, educations and events to North Carolina. If your organization is looking for a non-profit to partner with, please consider us. Email us at We would love to hear from you!

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