Toxic stress vs chronic stress – what is the difference?

The theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018 is stress. Our Time’s CEO, Dympna Cunnane, discusses the difference between toxic stress and chronic stress.

Toxic stress and chronic stress: these are very scary words, what do they mean?

Let’s take them one at a time, stress is the tension between our capabilities and the demands on us, like an elastic band stretched between two poles. When the tension gets too stretched it will snap or break. We must either reduce the demands or increase the capabilities or both.

Chronic stress

This word comes from the medical world and indicates long term illness.

Chronic stress, or a constant stress experienced over a prolonged period of time, can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. Examples of life events related to chronic psychological stress include serious life events like loss of a loved one, being bullied, illness, accidents or a trauma such as a car accident or other forms of physical assault. Social isolation and resulting feelings of low self-worth also give rise to chronic stress and can lead to increased blood pressure, which predisposes a person to getting a stroke. You can, however do something to relieve this kind of long-term stress by, for example:

  • Find ways to have fun. Laughter has been found to lower levels of stress hormones, reduce inflammation in the arteries, and increase “good” HDL cholesterol.
  • Meditation or mindfulness practice can help to regain a sense of proportion when things seem overwhelming. There are many apps such as Head Space which are very useful.
  • Exercise is often the last thing you want to do when you are stressed but it is one of the best de-stressors available and does not need to cost anything. A daily run or walk is enough to activate the body’s autonomic nervous system.
  • Reduce your use of social media or gaming, unplug for a few hours, especially in the evening and at bedtime
  • Get a good sleep, you need eight hours and perhaps more when you are a teenager. Make your bedroom device-free, including computers and TV.
  • Find ways to take the edge off your stress that suit your personality and lifestyle, everyone has different ways of relaxing, some healthier than others, think about healthy ways to relax and do what brings you joy.

The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and of blood pressure, can take a toll on the body.

Toxic stress

Toxic is the scariest word of these words and comes from the ACE (adverse childhood experiences) research. The reason for using toxic is because this kind of stress alters the developing brain and gives rise to diseases, both physical and mental. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline shut down areas of the brain as a defence against uncontrollable feelings related to fear.

Toxic stress is of a different order to ordinary stress in that it is persistent and systemic, the child has no control over their situation and nothing they can do will make a difference, they are powerless to change the situation and it is a more or less permanent situation. If there is something we can do to alleviate the situation, then it’s not considered toxic. In addition, the stress occurs early in life when the brain and mind is developing and it therefore becomes part of the pattern of functioning of the person and is outside of their consciousness, it creates a world view based on fear and threat. In this way, the child grows up with a heightened sense of threat, a hyper alertness which gives rise to reactions that are out of proportion to the threat. Anger becomes rage and fear becomes terror.

There are 10 ACEs, parental mental illness is one of the ten, although we would suggest that it lies behind many of the 10, for example parental conflict, loss and separation, encounters with the law, substance misuse etc. Parental mental illness is one of the ACEs that gets least attention and therefore is less understood and supported. This is because of the stigma around mental illness which is still embedded in our society.

To help children develop their capacity for dealing with stress we must think about the environment in which they grow and develop and we should support them. This means that the adults who work with children and young people need to work together to prevent stress becoming toxic and we should think about education and social space in this light. Children and young people need to develop their social skills and capacity for trust in relationships. This will not happen if we continue to focus on treating children in isolation, fixing problems rather than creating healthy environments.