Childhood Toxic Stress Can Stay With You Though Adulthood In These Scary Ways

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Our childhood can affect so many things, and as you grow up you realise just how pivotal your younger years were in shaping the person you are now. From your beliefs to your emotional wellbeing, a lot can be determined during this time. Unfortunately, there are negative conditions, such as toxic stress, which can develop as a child, and can spill out over into adulthood. But what is toxic stress? And how can it be prevented or treated?

What is toxic stress?

Toxic stress is a condition that is developed during childhood. As children, we are sometimes exposed to stress. According to The Center On The Developing Child at Harvard University, this causes our stress response systems to be activated. For many children, a supportive environment, including family members and healthy relationships, mean that our stress levels can go back to normal, and we learn how to develop healthy stress response systems.

However, as Harvard's experts explain, if children are exposed to continuous, serious stress, and do not have the "buffering relationships" mentioned above, then it can lead to a damaged stress response system, which can affect the child into adulthood.

The Center On The Developing Child explains that there are three effects the stress response system can have on the body: positive, tolerable, and toxic.


A positive effect is described as, "a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels."

A tolerable effect "activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties." However, "if the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects."

A toxic effect, on the other hand, is far more damaging. It can occur "when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity ... without adequate adult support."

This continuous negative activation of the stress response systems can "disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years."

How can toxic stress affect you as an adult?

While toxic stress is developed during childhood, it can have a huge affect on life as an adult. The Center On The Developing Child explains that continued toxic stress throughout childhood can have a "cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health" throughout their later life. This includes mental health issues such as depression, as well as physical illnesses like diabetes, and heart disease.

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A study published by The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) also notes that problems relating to toxic stress can manifest itself in later life as physical and mental health issues including alcoholism, obesity, depression and even cancer.

How can toxic stress be prevented?

The positive news is that there are ways to avoid toxic stress from developing — but it's important to act quickly as prevention seems easier than treatment, the NCBI notes. The author behind the NCBI study, Hillary A. Franke, says that, because toxic stress is developed due to a lack of "buffers" (such as a supportive family), the best way to prevent toxic stress from developing is to provide the most supportive environment for a child as possible, in order for them to learn to deal with stress. Franke explains that "targeting the caretaker’s stressors and improving the caretaker’s capacity to provide safe, stable and nurturing relationships may mitigate any toxic stress response in children."

How can toxic stress be treated?

Treating toxic stress is more of a challenge than preventing it. Franke explains: "Treatment of toxic stress requires timely intervention, and goals are to decrease stressors and the individual’s response to stressors, to minimise vulnerability, and to strengthen resiliency." She notes that mindfulness techniques and therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy can help.

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