August 18, 2017

By Brittney Schaeffer, MS, LMFT


Stress is a universal part of the human experience. More often than not, the stress we experience on a day-to-day basis is tolerable—meaning, we have the coping skills and support to endure it. There is, however, another kind of stress that is not so common has been referred to as toxic stress

Toxic stress, or trauma, is an experience that overwhelms us, sometimes making us feel like we are in serious danger. It can leave us feeling powerless and hopeless. And we may not have the coping skills or support we would need to fully deal with it. 

Although the impact of toxic stress can be chronic and impactful on adults, it is particularly detrimental for children. Toxic stress in childhood is not only a serious social problem, it costs our country billions of dollars over the lifespan of traumatized children. Not to mention:

  • One study found that 96.4% of psychiatrically hospitalized adolescents have a history of lifetime physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse.
  • 8 in 10 incarcerated women have a history with physical and/or sexual abuse.
  • A child that had experienced at least four toxically stressful events was 15 times more likely to attempt suicide, 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, and 4 times more likely to become an alcoholic or intravenous drug user.

The Impact of Stress on the Brain

Toxic stress can actually change the structures of the brain. When a child experiences toxic stress, the brain responds by flooding the body with stress-related chemicals. It does this because it perceives some kind of threat or danger and floods the body with the chemicals necessary for survival. Think flight, fight, or freeze. 

When that “flooding” happens again and again and again, the brain and body changes. The brain gets accustomed to the danger-survival cycle and often floods the body with stress-related chemicals at the first hint of any kind of threat—even if the threat is long gone. Stress-related chemicals can have a lasting impact on the body—leading to a greater susceptibility to chronic disease and addiction.

We Need a Peer

The good news is that when a person is no longer exposed to constant experiences of threat and toxic stress, the brain can rest and begin to rebuild itself in healthier ways. The brain is capable of healing itself. The brain has the potential to make new cells and create new connections—most effectively through safe, compassionate relationships with others.

Anyone (child or adult) can develop a secure attachment with a caring individual that has his or her best interest in mind. This can happen at any time. For this reason, health care professionals, mental health providers, educators, faith-based workers, and peer relationships are critically important to building resiliency to toxic stress.

In adolescence, youth begin to place more importance on peer relationships. Youth look to their friends for support and acceptance. In professional services, peers are people who have lived through similar life experiences and are available to provide compassionate support. Peer-supported services have been shown to reduce bullying, reduce the rates of suicide and addiction, and improve overall mental health outcomes.

What You Can Do

One of the best things we can do for ourselves is find a safe and compassionate place where we feel accepted. The other? Be a safe place. Take care of yourself so you can care for others. Strive to listen more than talk. Consider what someone else is feeling beneath their anxious behavior. Be a positive peer. 

We all experience stress. But we’re not destined to be bound by the symptoms of toxic stress forever. Together, we build self and community resiliency. Together, we recover.


Brittney Schaeffer, MS, LMFT is an employee of Wichita State University’s Community Engagement Institute.  She works with a peer-supported group for youth ages 12-18 that struggle with mental health challenges called Youth Leaders in Kansas (YLinK), with Consumer-Run Organizations (CROs) around Kansas, and on the Trauma-Informed Systems of Care team. 


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