Toxic Stress: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

What is Toxic Stress?

Stress is a hard-wired response of our mind/body to certain situations.

Positive Stress: There’s a level of stress that is healthy, and can even be good, to be experienced as a child. At a mild level of stress that does not last long, a child can learn to overcome the stressful event and gain confidence in their own abilities. They can build resilience skills. This is a positive level of stress.

Tolerable Stress: When an infant/child experiences a higher degree of stress this can exhaust their coping mechanisms, and this can impact their development and how they cope with stress. If the stressful event is short lived, or there are protective factors such as a supportive caregiver to help them navigate their way through their stressful experience, this can help a child cope and protect them from the negative effects of stress.

Toxic Stress: At a severe level of stress, particularly if it lasts a long time, without supportive factors, a child’s development can be affected. This can impact their ability to learn, their ability to form healthy relationships, their ability to complete school and hold a job as well as their mental and physical health. Toxic stress can include abuse, financial strain on the family and intimate partner violence.

What can cause Toxic Stress?

Family stressors, trauma, financial difficulties, poverty, neglect, abuse, among others. A child’s ability to cope with the stress can change the impact the stressful event may leave on the child. The genetic makeup of the child can change the impact the stressful event can leave on the child. Moreover, the developmental stage at which the child experiences the stress can change the impact the stressful event leaves on the child.

How can toxic stress impact my child’s health?

There are complex mechanisms by which mental and physical health and wellbeing can be affected, resulting in chronic disease that can last a lifetime. Some of these negative effects include:

  1. Negative impact on child development
  2. Learning problems
  3. Behavioural problems
  4. Mental health problems such as depression
  5. Social problems
  6. Increase in infectious diseases
  7. Heart disease
  8. High blood pressure
  9. Diabetes
  10. Earlier adult death
  11. Premature aging

Maternal mental health during pregnancy has been found to impact a fetus’ immune response, and chronic stress/anxiety in mother during pregnancy can lead to more illnesses in newborns.

So, what’s love got to do with it?

When I say love, I basically mean responsive caregiving. That could be from a parent, a guardian, anyone who is in a position to care for a child. When you think back to people who were there for you during a difficult time, those are likely the people that made a difference to how you got through it. Caregivers that provide support, unconditional love, a non-judgemental, understanding listening ear – they can all help mitigate the negative effects of toxic stress.

Animal models have helped understand the impact of supportive caregivers on the stress response. During the early period of a baby’s life, the family environment can impact how we respond to stress. In fact, even if we are genetically susceptible to negative stress responses (such as high levels of anxiety, reduced resilience, etc), our environment can work to impact which genes are turned on/off (epigenetics). That is, a supportive caregiving environment can affect the way our genetic code is expressed, to help a child mentally and physically cope with stress in a much healthier way.

In studies of rodents, those whose mothers were highly nurturing showed well regulated stress response in the body, whereas those who were born to low nurturing mothers showed a dysregulated stress response. A supportive environment provided at any time in a child’s life is beneficial, but there are also certain times this is more beneficial than others as their brains are developing.

The Science of Early Life Toxic Stress for Pediatric Practice and Advocacy (Pediatrics, Volume 131, Number 2, February 2013)

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

Also known as the ACE Study, is a study that investigated childhood abuse and family challenges and their impact on later life health and wellbeing. The higher the ACE score (which is based on factors that contribute to toxic stress), the greater your likelihood of developing health problems as a result. If you are curious about your own ACE score, check out the CDC Website on the ACE study, and scroll down to Survey Questionnaires.


So, there is some evidence that the environment in which we raise our children can impact not only their mental but also physical health.

Can you think of a time an event in your childhood left you stressed and how adults around you impacted how you coped with this stress? I would love to hear your thoughts!