Toxic stress and its impact on you

“Unhappy childhoods will kill you as an adult.” –  Anon

We all know that how we are treated as children has a profound effect on us as adults. If you are surrounded by people that smoke; you are more likely to smoke. Likewise with drink and drugs. We also know that unhappy experiences in childhood – such as being bullied, abused or neglected – are more likely to lead to mental health issues in later life. On the flip side, if you are brought up in a loving, kind filled and inclusive family; you are more likely to reflect that yourself as an adult.

Driving home late the other evening; I was listening to a programme on the radio which literally made me stop the car to listen. I sat in rapt attention as I heard the presenter talk about the impact of childhood stress on adult life.

What was being discussed was that chronic stress and anxiety during childhood can trigger dramatic changes in the body which contribute to our risk of developing life threatening diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer and strokes. Chronic stress in childhood is also associated with a shortened life span. The term that is used to describe this is “Toxic Stress”.

Toxic Stress:

So what are some of the symptoms of toxic stress? These were some of the symptoms that doctors see in children that exhibit toxic stress. They include:

  • Wired and tense bodies.
  • They have a self perception of being wound up tight like a spring
  • Shallow and rapid breathing, somewhat like panting
  • Faster than normal heart rate
  • Feeling threatened and in constant danger
  • Stress levels that do not decrease with time, rather they are constant

What causes the stress and what is the impact on the child as it grows up?


ACE: stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences

These childhood experiences harm the children’s developing brains and bodies so profoundly that the effects show up decades later. They cause many chronic diseases, most mental illness, and are at the root of most violence.

“ACEs” comes from the USA centre for Desease Control CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, a groundbreaking public health study that was carried out in 1997. The ACE Study has published over 77 research papers that time. Hundreds of additional research papers based on the ACE Study have also been published, across the globe, including a fantastic paper in the UK where 3,885 people nationally tok part that correlates to the statistics below.

The original study used a survey and interviews with 17,000 people to identify and measure 10 adverse experiences that have a dramatic effect.They have continued to actively monitor those people throughout their lives for the past 19 years, updating and refreshing the results over time.

NOTE: The 17,000 ACE Study participants were mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class, college-educated, and all had jobs and great health care. In effect, mostly like you or I.

The 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences the researchers identified are as follows:

  1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
  2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often… Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you? or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
  3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever… Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way? or Attempt or actually have intercourse with you?
  4. Did you often or very often feel that … No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special? or Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
  5. Did you often or very often feel that … You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? or Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
  6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
  7. Was your mother or stepmother: Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her? or Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard? or Ever repeatedly hit for at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
  8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic, or who used street drugs?
  9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?
  10. Did a household member go to prison?


Impact on us all:

What made me sit up was some of the statistics and impact on us as adults. They included:


  • 64% of the population have 1 or more category and could be impacted healthwise.


  • One in eight people have 4 or more categories and if you are one, you will be,
    • are twice as likely to be smokers;
    • Seven times more likely to be alcoholics or to be binge eaters;
    • 460% increase in depression and
    • 1,200% more likely to commit suicide
  • If you have 6 or more categories, you will be:
    • 3,100 to 5,000% – yes these numbers are correct – more likely to commit suicide
    • 4,600% more likely to be a serious drug or alcohol user
    • You can take up to 20 years off your life. Yes. You could die 20 years earlier than normal

So why does toxic stress affect children so much?

When children are overloaded with stress hormones, they’re in flight, fright or freeze mode. They can’t learn in school. They often have difficulty trusting adults or developing healthy relationships with peers and often become loners, which re-enforces their sense of isolation. To relieve their anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and their inability to focus, they turn to easily available tean solutions: excessive eating (rarely eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa), cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. In addition, they take part in activities in which they can escape their problems; high-risk sports, many sexual partners, and even illegal activities such as drug dealing, stealing, mugging, joy riding, etc.

Using drugs or overeating or engaging in risky behavior leads to consequences. For example, smoking can lead to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) or lung cancer. Overeating can lead to obesity and diabetes. In addition, there is increasing research that shows that severe and chronic stress leads to bodily systems producing an inflammatory response that leads to disease.

How can you counteract this?

Fortunately, the bodies ability to recover is remarkable. In addition, the brain is not fixed in its make up either. I will further explore how you can make positive changes in a separate article to follow up on this one.

Further resources available:

BBC Radio show that prompted this article – Unhappy Child, Unhappy Adult:

Great TED talk on How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime from Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris:

New York Times article:

ACE – Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study
I leave you with the following quote:

“When we are true to ourselves, all that is toxic and burdensome simply falls away”  ― Dina Hansen

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