What Is Toxic Stress and How Can You Help Young People Experiencing It?

A young man sits with his head in his hands.

A new white paper from The Center for Youth Wellness, a child and family heath organization in San Francisco, explains how adverse childhood experiences, often referred to as ACEs, can lead to toxic stress and ultimately poor health and well-being throughout a person's life.

In "An Unhealthy Dose of Stress," the authors define toxic stress as ”extreme, frequent or extended activation of the body’s stress response without the buffering presence of a supportive adult.” The body reacts to stress by releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. When the human body produces too much cortisol, the immune system is suppressed, which can lead to more exposure to infection and disease.

The human body isn't meant to be in a constant state of "fight or flight," but that's often the situation for children and youth who have had many adverse experiences in childhood, the whitepaper says. Research suggests a person with four or more adverse childhood experiences is more likely to attempt suicide, use injection drugs, and become and alcoholic.

But the white paper suggests the impacts of toxic stress are not irreversible. By recognizing toxic stress in the early years of a child's life, youth and family service professionals may be able to intervene and possibly change the child's life trajectory, the authors say.

The white paper says social service programs and states can support better outcomes for children, youth and families by responding to toxic stress in the following ways:

  • Work with researchers to gather more data about adverse childhood experiences and improve understanding of the scope of the problem.
  • Streamline services to holistically address mental, behavorial and physical health.
  • Educate and train social service professionals about adverse childhood experiences and ways they can help children and youth dealing with toxic stress.
  • Screen young children for toxic stress. 

Read "An Unhealthy Dose of Stress."

Read NCFY's content on trauma-informed care, an approach to helping young people who've faced adversity and trauma.

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children & Families.

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