What Is Toxic Stress?

curly haired-person looking stressed, with tattoo on arm

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Stress is a biological response to external or internal pressures. If the stressors are ongoing, persistent, and feel threatening, these temporary stressors can convert into toxic stress.

Healthy Stress Can Be Good for You

Stress is a universal occurrence and a normal experience. Everyday stressors can range from positive to negative levels.

A 2015 study from the University of Berkeley found acute levels of stress hormones, known as eustress, can benefit individuals and optimize alertness, behavioral, and cognitive performance to adapt to situations better. 

When Does Stress Become 'Toxic'?

To face stress, the nervous system responds by releasing hormones and neurotransmitters to increase the individual’s heart rate and blood pressure to face the perceived danger. The muscles tense up and breaths shorten. Once the stressor has been confronted, the stress response then deactivates and returns back to homeostasis, which is a balanced and relaxed bodily state. 

Too Many Stressors Leads to Toxic Stress

Once the exposure to the stress becomes chronic or severely distressing, the body shifts into an ongoing state of the fight-or-flight response. Without an off switch to the stressor, the internal alarm bells remain activated—even after the threat is long and gone. 

The Build-Up of Stress & Your Health

The dysregulated nervous system works to alleviate the constant pressure by flooding the body with adrenaline and cortisol. If the stressor is long-lasting, the tolerable stress increases and intensifies into toxic stress as the body kicks into allostatic overload(cumulative stress aka the build-up of stress within the body over time).

As your stress continues to increase, your physical and mental health begins to decline.

Signs of Toxic Stress

Toxic stress leads to heightened cortisol levels which can impact one’s ability to manage their mental health and emotional regulation healthily.

Learning to identify how toxic stresscan affect one's physicality, behaviors, and emotions is the first step to reducing its health risks.

There are common symptoms, including but not limited to: 

How Toxic Stress Affects Your Brain 

The brain is the command center for the human nervous system and appraises the threat level of a stressor. At healthy levels, it can apply the appropriate behavioral and physiological responses. However, once stress builds up, it impacts the capacity of brain functioning.

Your Brains Gets Exhausted

The exhausted brain shrinks and loses its brain volume as it slows down to manage chronic stress or major depression instead, losing its overall efficiency to make optimal choices. The overloaded neural synapses are unable to deal with cognition and emotions. 

Your Critical Thinking Becomes Impaired

The prefrontal cortex,located at the front of the frontal brain, is the most susceptible to stress exposure. When there are consistent levels of stress, it impairs the prefrontal cortex’s ability to regulate cognitive expression and personality development accordingly—creating a neural vulnerability for the amygdala and the fear response. Then, irrational impulses take over the other critical thinking parts of the brain. 

Toxic Stress' Impacts Your Overall Neurobiology & Physical Health

To understand its full impact, it may be helpful to consider a few different examples of how it can negatively impact one’s neurobiology.

  • Heightened cortisol response which puts you at risk for increased heart problems, high blood pressure, digestive problems, weight gain, and more  
  • Impaired mental health which can play a part in the pathophysiology of mental illnesses such as anxiety, depressive disorders, behavioral dysregulation, PTSD, and psychosis 
  • Maladaptive changes to brain architecture where the brain can turn off the adrenals, leading to sluggishness, sloth-like behavior, problems with memory, learning impairment, and adrenal burnout 
  • Modified gene expression which can change how your immune system responds to illnesses which increases the risk and frequency of sicknesses
  • Poor stress management and coping skills which inhibits one’s ability to manage challenging situations appropriately 
  • Unhealthy lifestyles which may contribute to depression, cancer, heart disease 

These are some of the negative effects but they may have far-reaching consequences physically, mentally, and emotionally if the toxic stress is not addressed in time. The brain is one of the most important organs in the human body.

So, if your brain is unable to operate to the best of its ability, it fundamentally changes who you are, and how you think, perceives information, and manage your nervous system.

Maintaining the brain’s health so it can respond to stress properly is vital to your well-being. 

How Toxic Stress Impacts Children

Toxic stress is overwhelming for individuals of all age groups, but it is particularly damaging for children.

Adverse Childhood Experiences and Stress

As a child’s brain develops, adverse childhood experiences can alter the architecture in the brain, leading to impaired coping skills and debilitating long-term health effects. Without the proper emotional support from caretakers, toxic stress can create abnormal stress responses that might not reveal themselves for years. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adverse childhood experiences can put one at risk for future violence victimization and mental illnesses. An ACE (adverse childhood experience) score is a tally of various abuse, neglect, and other hallmarks of a rough childhood—the higher the score, the higher the risk for health issues. 

The experiences that can contribute to toxic stress are events such as: 

  • Early life adversity
  • Extreme poverty
  • Household dysfunction
  • Poor health 
  • Food scarcity
  • Loss of a parent or a painful divorce 
  • Witnessing violence in the home or community
  • Having a family member attempt or die by suicide 
  • Childhood abuse (emotional/physical/neglect)
  • Caretakers with substance problems or mental health conditions
  • Ongoing exposure to less severe, yet chronic, daily stressors
  • Instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison 

Tips to Relieve Stress

When you're feeling overwhelmed, take a moment to pause and reach for a healthy coping response that will serve your body and mind. This can happen with a daily routine that helps ward off stressful events due to ongoing maintenance.

Some possible techniques can look like this:

  • Registering your physical body reactions when you're stressed, noticing if your breath constricts, your jaw tenses up, or your heartbeat races so you can take the steps to relax sooner rather than later
  • Processing emotions, thoughts, and sensations as they come up—no matter how painful, frustrating, or intense they may feel
  • Eating and drinking your meals with presence, putting down your phone and eating your food slowly while enjoying the sensation of the wind or the sun on your skin
  • Safeguarding your sleep habits, proper sleep hygiene can help with memory retention, and learning ability, regulate your metabolism, and grow dendrites which are branches in brain cells that convey information from one neuron to the next
  • Physical health improvement with exercise and movement
  • Mindfulness practices like yoga 

Doing these activities every day can help you promote and nurture a low-stress lifestyle. Studies show that one month after the stressful event has been removed from your life, the brain's anatomy from the stress-induced changes can remarkably bounce back.

The brain is plastic and has the ability to rewire itself back to healthy functioning, For neuroplasticity to occur, the brain's ability to change and adapt to experiences, just needs some intentionality and help to manage the damaging toxins of toxic stress with effective coping skills.

How to Reverse the Effects of Toxic Stress 

Although stress can induce neural changes in the brain, the brain is remarkably resilient and can bounce back from stress. Toxic stress can be a factor in a person’s life, but one can take steps to dramatically reverse its impact with several stress management techniques:

  • Talk therapy with a trusted therapist or mental health professional
  • Deep breathing or breath-work meditation to center yourself in the present moment
  • Body scanning techniques
  • Reflection through journaling or art by reframing the situation
  • Support from loved ones, friends, and family
  • Developing and maintaining healthy relationships for emotional support
  • Mitigating stressful situations with organization, to-do lists, and asking others for help

Learning how to manage your response to toxic stress appropriately can help you tackle other instances of intense stress later on so these tough situations can happen to you, but you're able to move on to find balance again.

A Word From Verywell

Building healthy habits is twofold: it can help you rewire the brain and have sustainable practices to allow you to get ahead of the toxic stress triggers and reduce their harmful effects.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Julie Nguyen
Julie Nguyen is a freelance mental health and sexuality writer. Her writing explores themes around mental well-being, culture, psychology, trauma, and human intimacy.