The Impacts of Toxic Stress on Development

Toxic stress can occur when a child or teen experiences strong, frequent and/or prolonged hardship–such as physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, parental substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence or family economic hardship, all while lacking adequate support from parents or other adults. This causes a prolonged stress response that can affect a child or teen’s development in several different ways.

Brain Development

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Toxic stress during early years is so influential that it can actually change one’s brain chemistry. When the brain’s stress signals are constantly activated during childhood and adolescence, it causes inflammation in various parts of the body. This can alter the relative parts of the brain responsible for learning, memory, decision making and anxiety, potentially altering other areas of one’s development as well.

Physical Development

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Toxic stress in childhood and adolescence has been shown to cause barriers to physical development with consequences that can continue into adulthood. Toxic stress has been linked to changes in the body’s immune function, which can result in poor health outcomes such as cardiovascular disease, viral hepatitis, asthma and poor dental health, regardless of whatever circumstances might follow later in life.

Social Development

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Individuals who experienced toxic stress as a child or teen may find themselves struggling with their social skills as an adult. They are more likely to have trouble maintaining supportive social networks than those who have not experienced toxic stress and are at higher risk of gang membership, violent crime and becoming single parents. Often this is because those who’ve experienced toxic stress did not experience healthy social relationships early in life.

Emotional Development

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Emotional development is often delayed in people who have experienced toxic stress, largely because many of their early emotions involved fear and stress. There are various different ways that delays in emotional development can manifest, but they include having difficulty in expressing, managing and experiencing emotions and reacting inappropriately when they are upset or are faced with a difficult situation.

Behavioral Development

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Studies have found that toxic stress in childhood is associated with unhealthy behaviors lifestyles as a coping mechanism in the adolescent and adult years. Some unhealthy lifestyles that are linked to a history of toxic stress include tobacco use, illicit drug abuse, obesity and pathological gambling. These behaviors and lifestyles are often adopted by people with a history of toxic stress because they do not know how to properly deal with the aftereffects of toxic stress.

Mental Health Development

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The risk of developing a mental illness such as an anxiety disorder or depression is much higher for people who have experienced toxic stress, due to the influence of constant stress, fear and anxiety during the brain’s formative years.

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