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Toxic stress

Identify potential stress risks in your life

Stress, in isolation, can be good. Stress is the body and mind’s response to elements and events that surround us, and at its core, is an adaptive response. The expression “fight or flight” comes to mind—a stress-induced reaction by our body to either run from or engage with something we find startling or threatening. Without at least a bit of stress, we could find ourselves vulnerable to any number of concerns. 

The sympathetic nervous system response to stress is multifaceted: pupil dilation, heart rate increase, glucose release, digestive and urinary inhibition and bronchial dilation. The body increases the depth of visual field and prepares to take in higher amounts of oxygen and increase circulation. Similarly, after a stressful scenario, we unconsciously engage our parasympathetic nervous system to help reverse these actions and return us to an even keel. This is the way the stress response is supposed to work. 

With all things, however, moderation is the key. Repeated cycling of the sympathetic-parasympathetic nervous response can tax the body. Just like driving a car, “flooring” the accelerator every now and then may be OK, but it’s not routine driving. In fact, it can cause car problems.

Stress in children

Toxic stress is the repeated, or chronic, exposure to the stress response without the ability to return to evenness in the mind and body. In children especially, issues of toxic stress are intensified by unstable living environments and social factors. Without a steady, grounding environment, a child is at increased risk for developing chronic health concerns. Studies have demonstrated a tendency for physical (like diabetes and asthma) and psychological (like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress) disorders in those experiencing toxic stress in childhood. 

One of the best things you can do is identify risk factors that may cause a stress response in you or your children. Are there multiple stressors in your home, educational or social environment? Are there situations that you or your child avoid whenever possible because you get anxious just thinking about them? Are there activities that excessively wear you out? These may be indicators of a stress response. After noting the concerns, identify and implement healthy coping mechanisms to see a significant benefit. 

Open the lines of communication with those in your life. Discuss things that make you anxious or concerned, and do not be afraid to ask for help—from your family, friends or a professional. Your care providers also can make recommendations for healthy and adaptive ways to not only reduce stress, but to work to reverse any adverse impact you have experienced. 

TIMOTHY J. AINGER, PH.D, is an associate professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. 

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