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January 2020

Is your child under toxic stress? Are you?

We all relate "toxic" to the effect of substances harming our bodily functions in some way. How does stress do it? Well, it is also made of substance - stress hormones - which, if abundant, lasting too long, or becoming repetitive, can harm our bodies just as any conventional toxin. Main difference being, its effect are more hideous, more complex and harder to track down.

The term "toxic stress" is relatively recent, and primarily associated with its effect on children, during the time of actual stress exposure, but also with its effects in the adolescence and adulthood. In other words, your child may be experiencing stress that could not only adversely affect its development, physical and mental, during those years, but also its physical and mental health then and

 in its adult life.

Since estimates are that most of us does experience potentially toxic stress level during our childhood, health problems you might be experiencing now may originate, at least in part, far back in your childhood.

How does stress do that? It is known that stress changes one's overall state from the desirable, relaxed, to the tense, "fight or flight" modality. With it come physiological changes in body functions, shifting priorities from the maintenance/regeneration/protective functions to (over)stimulating body's motor functions - muscular, cardio and respiratory. The entire body chemistry changes, causing temporary derangement of the neuro/endocrine/immuno response which, if such state persists,

can cause permanent changes through epigenetic alterations and modified gene function.

In fact, it can negatively reshape one's entire life.

Examples of such toxic stress for a child are abuse, neglect, extreme poverty, violent or severely dysfunctional living environment, but also relatively minor stress factors that are, alone or combined, subjectively elevated to the level of toxic stress. It has both, immediate and long term consequences, with the latter being important determinant of one's social adaptability, lifestyle and health (not only due to poor habits, but also due to suppression of the immune function - among others - while toxic stress, through its more or less connected forms, perpetuates itself in time).

The ensuing neural disregulation, through modified gene expression, is believed to be a factor in the development of depression, behavioral anomalies, post traumatic stress disorder and psychosis.

Chronic degenerative diseases associated with toxic stress exposure and its consequences can be anything from pulmonary or heart disease to cancer. Poor health habits - obesity, alcoholism, substance abuse - can be an indirect response to the toxic stress exposure, in addition to its direct physiological effects.

Self-image, and perception of the world one lives in are unavoidably adversely affected by this level of stress, and so on...

Is there a way out of this bottoming spiral? Enter resilience.

We all know the meaning of it: the ability to withstand adverse conditions. What is it that makes us more resilient to stress? A few things:

1 - personality strength
2 - other people's support, beginning with the immediate family
3 - being organized
4 - healthy lifestyle
5 - relaxation

There are many components to personality strength. Children with resilience to stress have been found to have, among other things, positive self image, perception of competence, empathy, social skills, and higher IQ. There is no reason not to assume those are not as important to adults, with the addition of sense of purpose and accomplishment.

Social interactions, beginning with the family and school (work environment for adults), are potentially very stressful, particularly to those who lack in the personality strength department. The more they do, the more they need other people's consideration and support.

Learning to organize on a daily, short and long term basis makes one's life more productive, smoother and less stressful.

Healthy lifestyle enables the body to function near its optimum, which is assuring by itself, and does help the ability to handle stress. Having enough of sleep counts, and proper diet always helps: last thing the stressed out person needs is not having enough nutrients necessary to recycle stress hormones.

While these resilience factors act as a buffer between you and toxic stress, relaxation is more like a vent reducing the pressure. It reverses physiological effects of stress by lowering respiratory rate, heart rate and blood pressure, shifting body's priority from motor functions back to maintenance/regeneration/protective, i.e. helping recharge your batteries. Even as simple techniques as taking several deep breaths, or repeating a word, or phrase, while sitting in a quiet area, can have significant calming effect.

Knowing what builds resilience to toxic stress, beginning with personality strength, defines what is needed to ensure that your children - or you - don't succumb to it. No lifestyle change, less so personality change, can be accomplished overnight, but one little step at the time will go long way.

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