We know that stress that if left unchecked can contribute to problems with many physical and mental health conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, depression, and anxiety to name a few.
The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard University notes that there are three types of stress which are listed below: (1)
The first category of stress is healthy stress. Experiencing healthy stress is an important part of healthy development. This type of stress helps you achieve your goals to be persistent, endure, and help others. Examples of healthy stress are learning to ride a bicycle, studying for a test, practicing an instrument, preparing for your driver’s license, and training for athletic competitions. This stress is resolved after the goal is completed.
A second category of stress is called tolerable stress. These are stressors that are more severe, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening situation. The presence of a supportive, protective, and trusted adult helps to buffer the body’s response to this stress and provides healthy ways to cope.
The third category of stress is toxic stress. Individuals are surrounded by thoughts that probably cause a more severe form of stress that is persistent and can cause harm to the body and mind. If there is frequent or prolonged exposure to adverse events, stress can become toxic (dangerous or poisonous) to our physical and emotional health.
Toxic stress is defined as the “prolonged activation of the stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships.” (1). Unhealthy or toxic, stressful experiences early in life can rewire the brain toward unhealthy circuits, leading to negative thinking and coping mechanisms that can eventually impact your emotional, mental, spiritual, social, and physical well-being. In the Modern world, toxic stress is not protective or healthy but prolonged and not limited to just one event. This stress is different from the healthy stress that is protective.
Science has shown us that stress or trauma experienced in childhood, known as adverse childhood events (ACEs), can have a major impact on the brain and your physical health over a lifetime. ACEs can harm the developing brains of children and lead to chronic diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, immune problems, and high blood pressure and mental illness, (such as depression and anxiety). In fact, the more ACEs an individual experience in life, the more likely that person is to engage in risky behaviors as a way of self-medicating.
A lot of the research on ACE’s was based on a landmark study that was done in 1998, which revealed that adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs) could lead to behavioral and chronic health issues. The ACE Study was a collaboration between Kaiser Health Systems and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The study examined the relationship of childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. This study surveyed approximately seventeen thousand patients in the Kaiser Health System for adverse childhood events. The survey included ten recognized adverse childhood events (ACE’s) which were divided into three categories: abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction. The population surveyed had access to good health insurance and were socially, educationally, and economically secure. ACEs are dose-related and were scored on a range of one to ten. The higher the number of adversities experienced, the higher the behavioral and physical consequences. The study revealed that at least two thirds of the participants had experienced at least one adverse event during childhood. (2). In a white paper issued by the Center for Youth and Wellness, “An Unhealthy Dose of Stress,” the authors noted that individuals with an ACE score of four or more are 2.2 times more likely to have ischemic heart disease, 2.4 times more likely to have a stroke, 1.9 times more likely to have cancer, and 1.6 times more likely to have diabetes. They were also 12.2 times as likely to attempt suicide, 10.3 times as likely to use injection drugs, and 7.4 times as likely to be alcoholics. Furthermore, the paper referenced a study published in 2011, which found that children with four or more ACEs were 37.6 times as likely to have learning and behavior problems, compared with children who had no ACES. (3)
All types of trauma can cause adversities in children and youth. Exposure to trauma can lead to a prolonged activation of the stress response system and keep our bodies on constant alert. Trauma comes in many forms such as community violence, natural disasters, unintentional injuries, terrorism, immigrant or refugee traumas (including detention, discrimination or racism), bullying, sex trafficking and/or those involving the caregiving relationship, such as intimate partner violence, parental substance use, parental mental illness, caregiver death, separation from a caregiver, neglect, or abuse. (4) This chronic stress leads to constant pumping of stress hormones, such as adrenalin and cortisol, into the blood. Over time, these hormones, and other substances in the body cause damage to organs and leads to behavioral and physical disease states. This severe stress can lead to unhealthy thought patterns (negative thinking), and how we view ourselves and others. Examples of unhealthy thought patterns are low self-esteem, feelings of rejection, abandonment, intense anger, guilt, frustration, jealousy, envy, rage, and inability to forgive or take personal responsibility. These thoughts lead us to make unhealthy decisions in life, which results in a need to fix ourselves through self-protection and/or self-medication. We falsely protect or medicate ourselves through taking risks (substance abuse, prescription medications, alcohol, tobacco, unprotected sex, violence, overeating) or developing toxic (unhealthy) relationships with others who can be controlling or abusive (physically or verbally).
Unfortunately, we live in a world today where trauma is an everyday part of our lives. Our global connectiveness brings traumatic experiences into our lives daily simply through our pocket mobile devices. Headlines, streamers, posts, alerts expose us to traumas outside our homes and compound upon issues we are experiencing in our personal lives.
Our brain and body health are interconnected. We know that our thoughts can impact our body in positive and negative ways. Healthy thoughts can promote healing. Multiple medical issues are connected to prolonged stress response on the brain and body including Hypertension, Heart disease, Diabetes Mellitus, Substance Abuse, Depression, Anxiety etc. Health practitioners that engage both mind and body in health care can reduce the impact of the unhealthy thinking on our physical health. Our thoughts whether healthy or unhealthy influence how we work, live, play or pray.
However, we expe:rience the trauma the body and mind interpret the trauma messages as a form of attack and goes into a protective mode. If continuous this can cause wear and tear on the mind, body, and spirit.
Trauma Informed Care is defined by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network as medical care in which all parties involved assess, recognize, and respond to the effects of traumatic stress on children, caregivers, and health care providers (5). This includes attention to secondary traumatic stress (STS), the emotional strain that results when an individual hears about the first-hand trauma experiences of another.
As a community of care by incorporating the impact of trauma into health care we can significantly address issues related to physical, mental, emotional, relational and spiritual health over a lifetime.
1. Center on Developing Child Harvard University. Tackling Toxic Stress. Center on Developing Child. [Online] 2022. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/tackling-toxic-stress/.
2. National Library of Medicine. PubMed. Am J of Prev. Med:ACE Study. [Online] May 1998. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9635069/.
3. Strategies, Center For Health Care. Trauma Informed Care. An Unhealthy Dose of Stress. [Online] July 2019. https://www.traumainformedcare.chcs.org/resource/an-unhealthy-dose-of-stress-the-impact-of-adverse-childhood-experiences-and-toxic-stress-on-childhood-health-and-development/.
4. Pediatrics. Preventing Childhood Toxic Stress. Pediatrics. [Online] August 2021. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/148/2/e2021052582/179805/Preventing-Childhood-Toxic-Stress-Partnering-With?_ga=2.28033724.1023840408.1666297197-1556864665.1647744415?autologincheck=redirected.
5. National Chld Traumatic Stress Network. Trauma Informed Systems. Trauma Informed Systems. [Online] 2022. https://www.nctsn.org/trauma-informed-care/creating-trauma-informed-systems.