Progress in our society depends on the extent to which we equalize opportunities for all children to achieve their full potential and engage in active citizenship. This can only be achieved through mitigating inequality and changing our thinking when it comes to the social services and public health sectors of the U.S. government. Unfortunately, due to our society’s denial of the continued prevalence of social inequality, medical professionals and policy makers are ill-prepared to deal with the “silent killer” that cripples millions living in poverty known as toxic stress.
“What separates toxic stress from regular stress?” you may ask. “Why is it considered one of the most detrimental health issues facing our society today?” We all experience some sort of adversity in our lives, but there are three main types of stress that have various impacts on our lives.
First is positive stress; It deals with short-term, moderate situations like studying for an exam, public speaking, and meeting new people. This type of stress is actually beneficial, as it allows us to develop resilience and grow as individuals. (Arruabarrena and Paul 118) Stress is an inevitable aspect of life, and one’s ability to cope is necessary in the process of development.
Next is tolerable stress; It deals with higher levels of adversity such as divorce, death, and natural disasters; these events are more serious, but individuals typically have the support of friends and family to help them through difficult times. These types of stress only influence us temporarily, as they allow our bodies to return to a state of homeostatic equilibrium.
Toxic stress goes beyond deadlines and divorce, as it occurs when adverse experiences are persistent, repetitive, and uncontrollable. Examples of this are abuse, neglect, poverty, violence, drug abuse, and many other serious issues. Toxic stress occurs in the absence of a support system; those affected aren’t capable of returning to a state of homeostatic equilibrium. When exposed to constant adversity, toxic stress can lead to a host of physical and mental health issues.
My main point is that people can experience high levels of adversity without being permanently impacted, only if they have people to support them and guide them developmentally.
It is imperative that children especially have a strong sense of physical and psychological health. Research has shown that toxic stress in childhood can have long-lasting negative implications on well-being throughout one’s entire life. The repercussions of toxic stress persist, as children who are affected by it are more likely to have mental health issues like depression, PTSD, and anxiety. They are also more prone to physical health issues like heart disease, diabetes, strokes, hypertension, and a host of other issues.
The root of the problem is evolutionary; the human species has survived primarily due to our sympathetic nervous system. Whenever there is a threat to our well-being, our heart rate increases, and our digestive and immune systems are interrupted. Our bodies physically prepare us by pumping adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream; this is the “fight or flight” reaction. Unfortunately, our bodies are not built to handle a nervous system that is chronically irritated. Toxic stress is the fight or flight on Steroids. When people live with serious threats like abuse, violence, or malnourishment, their bodies never calm down. Their development of executive functions are diminished, and this leads to issues with memory, decision-making, mood swings, impulse control, and self-regulation of behavior. This constant physical strain on the body is what leads to the host of the health issues that people experience.
The early years of life are crucial to the maturation of the brain. Toxic stress is a catalyst for biological adaptations that change the way the brain and immune system function. Research claims that those who face significant childhood adversity are at risk of serious developmental issues. As we develop, early toxic experiences physically influence the architecture of the brain. The first five years of life are when the foundation is built, and whether it is stable or fragile will influence behavior and cognitive skills. Interpersonal and learning skills are underdeveloped, due to unstable, toxic, or abusive relationship experiences. This is why many children in inner cities have issues like ADD and ADHD.
In order to protect those in poverty and secure a promising future for America, we must acknowledge that toxic stress is one of the most detrimental public health issues that society has ever faced. We must educate our pediatricians, social workers, teachers, and policy makers on the prevalence of this issue, and on the importance of early intervention. Once we tackle this issue, healthy development will increase human capital, allowing everyone to serve as productive members of society.