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What Is Toxic Stress?


You may suffer from toxic stress and not know it. Eating disorders and substance abuse problems, chronic depression or anxiety, difficulty in relationships, and sleep issues all may be symptoms of toxic stress. Because I know the childhoods of all my clients, I’d wager that many of them suffer from it, but don’t know it because they think what they feel is normal though it’s anything but.

Here’s an excellent description of toxic stress and its causes from “What Does “I Feel Fat!” Really Mean? by Carolyn Coker Ross, MD, MPH, CEDS (2/224/222, Gürze-Salucore Eating Disorders Resource Catalogue). “Abuse or neglect or any other negative experiences in childhood can lead to what is called toxic stress. Toxic stress causes an overproduction of stress hormones: cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. This leads to physical changes in the brain. The brain of a traumatized child resets itself to be in fight-or-flight—regardless of whether there is a current threat to the individual’s safety or security. Childhood trauma or adversity makes it seem as if almost everything in the world is likely dangerous and unsafe.” 

Childhood adversity is associated with depression, problems in school, feelings of despair, and trouble developing healthy relationships with peers and teachers because of difficulty with trust. To cope with feelings of depression, fear, and shame, people who’ve experienced toxic stress often find relief in food, drugs, alcohol, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports or demanding work. That’s why food and body image issues are not about food or about the body. Rather, a focus on body image or dissatisfaction serve as a distraction from other painful issues, such as childhood trauma, that may not have been addressed.

In childhood we all encounter occasional stress—parents argue, we move to another city, are disappointed that our parents lack the money to buy us things, feel envious of siblings, or are grounded as punishment. In healthy households, stress is at a minimum. Our parents may work hard and feel stressed but they handle it relatively well most of the time and usually don’t take it out on us. They don’t drink to excess, do drugs, regularly lose their jobs, give us the silent treatment, shame us, abandon the family and return when they feel like it or never return, neglect our concerns, or badly hurt us or each other sexually, physically or emotionally.

In healthy families, we may feel stressed for a short period of time, triggering the release of stress hormones which then return to normal levels. In toxic stress, we’re often in fear and, even when we’re not, we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop which causes chronic anxiety. In this way, we feel unsafe much of the time and believe we can never let down our guard. If this description fits you, please seek the help of a therapist to learn how toxic stress affected you and how to eliminate it in your life now.