Constant, chronic stress as a child may have a lifelong impact on a person's health. Researchers are just beginning to understand how adverse experiences in childhood impact the brain and other biological reactions in the body.
What Are ACES?
The term "ACEs" is an acronym for Adverse Childhood Experiences. ACEs refer to three specific kinds of adversity children face in the home environment - various forms of physical and emotional abuse, neglect and household dysfunction. ACEs research links childhood adversity with the experience of toxic stress - leading to poor health outcomes later in life.
What Is Toxic Stress?
The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child coined the term "toxic stress" to describe extensive, scientific knowledge about the effects of excessive activation of stress response systems on a child's developing brain.
"This isn’t day-to-day stress or stress about homework. These are a result of childhood abuse or neglect, or being in a home with domestic violence or substance abuse," said Kate Hill-Johnson, administrative director of community health improvement for Franciscan Health. "All of that starts to change an individual's DNA and becomes a risk factor for poor health outcomes."
Toxic stress explains how ACEs "get under the skin" and trigger biological reactions that lead to those outcomes. Stephanie Case, PhD, clinical psychologist at Franciscan Health Indianapolis, describes what toxic stress is.
"Toxic stress is the type of stress an individual is exposed to that is usually recurrent and prolonged and that the body does not adequately recover," Dr. Case said.
Toxic stress can happen in any group but may look different depending on the age of the person.
"Examples in childhood include abuse, neglect or household dysfunction," Dr. Chase said. "For older children, they may experience bullying or discrimination. In adulthood, abuse and neglect may also occur in the form of domestic violence or workplace discrimination."
What Does Toxic Stress Look Like?
When our fight or flight system is activated, it is meant to enhance our survival. When we experience recurrent and prolonged toxic stress, the response in our body cannot keep up with the demand, Dr. Case said.
Our bodies simply were not built to respond to chronic stressors.
"This may result in people being hypervigilant to perceived threats when real threats are not even present," she said. "This process puts an even greater demand on the individual's body. The individual eventually may respond by the third factor in survival: 'freeze'. This may look like 'zoning out' when toxic stressors occur, and people often describe 'feeling numb' to experiences. This also prevents ability to initiate coping with stressors also known as learned helplessness."
How Does Toxic Stress Affect Our Brains?
There is evidence that toxic stress occurring in early development can impact our brain much more than if they occur later in life because the foundation has not been laid for proper response to stressors or traumatic events.
"If these systems do not develop, they may be deficient throughout the lifespan," Dr. Case said.
Several factors have been identified that impact more than just the brain, but the entire body. For example, our brains form neural connections to adapt to our environment.
"If the environment is chaotic at the time these connections are forming, our brain becomes wired to respond to chaos," Dr. Case said. "Another example is that some signals the brain sends to the body may include stress hormones that are in excess such that the stress response in individuals who experience toxic stress are elevated at baseline and takes longer to decrease. Inflammation factors in the blood stream are also thought to be elevated in individuals exposed to toxic stress."
How Does Toxic Stress Hurt The Body?
Like most stress, toxic stress triggers our fight or flight response. Fight or flight results in increased stress hormones and allocation of the body's resource to protect oneself in the event of a threat.
Experiencing ACEs triggers the immune system, metabolic regulatory systems, and cardiovascular system. When a child experiences multiple ACEs over time, the experiences will trigger an excessive and long-lasting stress response.
How Can I Manage Toxic Stress?
Dr. Case has suggestions for managing toxic stress.
"The best thing to manage toxic stress is to remove it (or yourself) from the environment in which toxic stress is occurring," she said. "The next best thing is to have a strong support system or trusted individuals. Sometimes this involves mental health professionals, but can also include teachers, coaches, or family members."
Coping skills are specific to an individual and can include meditation, deep breathing, journaling, creating artwork, exercise, singing and cooking. It is important to have a plan to cope with stress and implement it early and often. Effective coping skills can be both preventative and protective.
"Individuals can also identify coping skills to manage stress responses and practice these skills frequently," Dr. Case said.
Some people who have experienced toxic stress as a way of life may find it difficult to ask others for help or support, Dr. Case said.
"If you or someone you know have experienced toxic stress you can learn to heal from past painful experiences, you are not alone," she said.
By Ariel Anderson
Social Media Specialist