Tag Archives: Toxic Stress

3 Types Of Childhood Stress : Positive, Tolerable And Toxic

Stress can be defined as ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’ and is, of course, an inevitable part of life. Whilst we often complain about stress due to the fact that too much of it can have damaging or even catastrophic effects upon our wellbeing, the right amount of stress is necessary and normal and this is true both in adulthood and childhood.

As children, exposure to a certain amount of stress is necessary and facilitates healthy development. The physiological effects of stress include an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased production of stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) and inctreased rate of breathing to more effectively deliver oxygen to the muscles to prepare us for ‘fight or flight.’

As long as the stress we experience as children is not too great and, crucially, we are provided with sufficient support from our significant relationships with others (primarily in the form of emotional support from our primary caregiver) we are able to cope with it (and, in physiological terms, our bodily functions such as heart rate etc. are able to return to normal and do not incur damage to our nervous systems).

However, if the stress to which we are exposed is too overwhelming, and we are not provided with sufficient support, the cumulative effects of stress and the accompanying physiological impact on our bodies can have seriously damaging effects, including upon the physical development of the brain, potentially resulting in life-long emotional, behavioral, cognitive and social consequences.


One way of thinking about stress, due to the very differing effects it can have upon us, is to view it as fitting into one of three possible categories which are listed below :


Let’s look at each of these three categories of stress in turn :


The physiological effect of positive stress is a short lasting accelaration of pulse rate and slight increase in levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Experiencing positive stress is an indispensible part of normal and healthy child development and an examples of situations which might give rise to such stress are a well-managed first day at school or a rudimentary dental check-up.


This type of stress induces a higher and longer lasting level of physiological arousal and the event giving rise to this reaction may go on for some time. Examples include grief resulting from the loss of a loved one or a natural disaster. However, in relation to such stress, it is necessary that the child has good emotional support and that the increased level of physiological response is not too long lasting / chronic if enduring damage to the brain and other bodily organs is to be avoided.


The child may be subjected to toxic stress when s / he experiences ongoing / frequent / chronic abuse, extreme poverty, living with a severely mentally ill parent, living in a household in which s / he is exposed to domestic violence or living with a parent / step-parent ho is an alcoholic ; additionally, the child who experiences toxic stress is often deprived of adequate, emotional support from a significant adult. Such circumstances entailing such prolonged exposure to stress can cause chronic physiological arousal which, in turn, can adversely affect brain development in terms of both structure and function and harm other bodily organs with serious adverse implications for adult life (i.e. increasing risk of several physical and mental illnesses relationship difficulties and various other problems).


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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

Possible Life-Long Effects Of Toxic Stress On The Child.

We have been programmed by evolution to have physical responses to perceived dangers and threats. These evolved to prepare our ancestors for ‘fight or flight’, when, for example, they were being stalked by a predator. The bodily responses we experience when we feel endangered and threatened include:

– an increased heart rate

– an increase in blood pressure

– an increase in the amount of stress hormones (such as cortisol) in our blood stream.

If a child experiences severe and chronic (ie. long-lasting) stress and has no emotional support (or poor and inadequate emotional support) to help him/her to cope with the stress and to buffer its effects then it can result in the actual architecture of the brain being damaged (the young brain is particularly sensitive and susceptible to the adverse effects of stress – psychologists call this sensitivity and susceptibility to architectural/physical change as the result of experience plasticity).

For example, a child may be emotionally abused by the mother over a num aber of years with no adequate support from the father (perhaps due to divorce from the mother, which was my own situation), older siblings (indeed, they may even join in the abuse), school, wider family or wider society.

The Three Types Of Stress Response:



1) Positive stress response:

This is a functional, normal, non-damaging type of stress, causing an only mild physiological response. An example might be a child’s first day at school. It is actually helpful to the child to experience such mild forms of stress and learn that s/he can cope with it as it helps to prepare him/her for adult life.

2) Tolerable stress response :

Here the stress experienced is more severe and/or long-lasting. The corresponding physiological response is therefore greater but still do no long-term damage as long as the child receives sufficient emotional support.

3) Toxic stress response:

Here the stress experienced is severe, long-lasting and frequent. Examples include:

– physical/emotional abuse

– neglect

maternal depression

– lack of adequate stimulation due to poverty

– living in a household where there is domestic violence

– living in a household where there is alcoholism/drug abuse

parental mental illness

The effects of toxic stress on the young mind can be life-long. Physical effects on the brain may include:

– disruption of brain circuitry

– anatomical changes

– physiological dysregulation

– damage to the brain structure called the amygdala

– damage to the brain structure called the hippocampus

– damage to the brain structure called the prefrontal cortex

Above: We can see here how severe neglect has physically affected the brain.


Adverse effects resulting from the above may include:

– poor mood control

– high, chronic anxiety

severely reduced capability to cope with stress

– severe reduction in socio-emotional skills

– excessive drinking in an attempt to reduce anxiety

– excessive smoking in an attempt to reduce anxiety

– unemployment

– poor academic achievement

– gang membership

– prison

– poverty

– homelessness

highly unstable and volatile interpersonal relationships

– unhealthy lifestyle leading to physical illnesses

– greater proneness to some medical conditions even in the absence of an unhealthy lifestyle


Toxic stress is a prevalent and very serious threat to young people’s welfare. Its adverse effects can be devastating, and, without appropriate therapy, last a lifetime.

It is therefore vital to identify individuals at risk as early as possible and to develop more effective therapeutic interventions. The earlier effective intervention occurs, the less likely the damage done to the young person will be irrevocable.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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Other Resources:

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Childhood Trauma Recovery