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How Do We Know when Stress is Toxic?

There are two kinds of stress: adaptive and toxic. We need adaptive stress because it helps us feel challenged and engaged in the world. Without adaptive stress, we have no vigor and lose our enthusiasm for life. Toxic stress isn't always terrible, either. Toxic stress can help us build our capacity to handle hard things. When stress is toxic, it causes wear and tear on our bodies, but it also gives our stress response system intense exercise that, just like in the gym, can lead to greater strength and resilience in the end.

How do we know when stress is good for us? How do we know if our children's stress is building strength or tearing them down?

According to the late neuroscientist and stress expert, Dr. Bruce McEwen, four toxic stress patterns indicate that stress is dangerous to our systems. Again, experiencing these is normal and necessary at times, and can even have positive end benefits. For mental and physical health, however, too much of it means that stress is hindering the quality of both life and development.

The first toxic stress pattern is having stress that happens frequently, meaning several times per day, and/or at a high intensity. Typically, the intensity won't be an appropriate match for the situation. If a child has a highly intense stress response--scream-crying over a sibling taking their toy truck out of the toybox, for example, or not being able to wear their favorite outfit because it is in the wash, there is probably something more profound going on. You might notice there are things your child can handle just fine in the morning or on a weekend day but fly off the handle more easily at times when they have fewer reserves. This is classic toxic stress that has become normalized in many families but does actually warrant attention.

The second toxic stress pattern is stress that lasts a long time. If you or your child experiences a stress response for longer than 20 minutes, the adrenaline has hit your bloodstream and is causing wear and tear. Remember that stress doesn't just look like yelling or screaming. It can be red zone fight-flight, but it can also look like combo's fright and freeze, or blue zone's flat and flop. Often, the stress in this pattern looks like the less obvious blue or combo zone.

McEwen's third toxic stress pattern is having difficulty with transitions. An inability to move smoothly from sleeping to waking, playing to having dinner, or being home to going out indicates nervous system rigidity. A balanced nervous system has stability and flexibility. Too much stability and not enough flexibility leads to rigidity; too much flexibility with not enough stability leads to chaos. An inability to transition means that the nervous system isn't flexible enough to change course and needs a reduction of stress to be able to do so.

The final and most concerning toxic stress pattern is an inability to recover from stress. A child has this stress pattern when they are experiencing severe stress from past or present trauma. They are always or almost always in the red, blue, or combo zones, returning to the green zone only briefly or a minority of the time. When this pattern is felt over years, stress starts to feel safer than equilibrium, and it becomes trickier to help a child return to the green zone and stay there.

If you think you or your child might be in toxic stress, it is important to act. Toxic stress levels create damage that can turn into health problems sooner or later. If you are looking for suggestions, Amelia and I are available to help. We both offer a free half-hour consultation here.

Betty Peralta


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