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Protective and Risk Factors for Toxic Stress

Everyone experiences stress in response to situations that can be perceived as uncertain or threatening. Our bodies are biologically programmed to respond to threats with a stress response, often referred to as “fight or flight.” This response is characterized by increased heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and the release of cortisol, the stress hormone.

It is important to know the risk and protective factors for toxic stress. As with physical and mental health conditions, recognizing and addressing toxic stress early can help us to increase protective factors and reduce its effects. 

Risk Factors for Toxic Stress

Exposure to Trauma

Previous exposure to trauma, especially in early childhood and adolescence when the brain and body are still developing, can make it more difficult to respond to stressors later in life. An example of research on how past trauma causes both toxic stress and intergenerational trauma is research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Any ACEs risk is a childhood experience that impacts safety for children. These experiences include childhood abuse or neglect, poverty, or exposure to violence. Other trauma that can lead to toxic stress is community violence or even prolonged bullying.

Stress and trauma become toxic when they are serious, frequent, and/or prolonged. When we experience that stress response often or for a long period of time, it can wear the brain and body down, and results in weakened systems and changed brain architecture that can affect our overall physical, mental and emotional health. People who experience toxic stress can be diagnosed with PTSD or Complex PTSD. However, experiencing trauma or toxic stress early in life does not guarantee that you will experience toxic stress later. While 90% of people experience some form of trauma in their life, most are fully capable of responding to and reducing the effects of stress, through building resiliency and other protective factors. 

Health behaviors

Stress and trauma can impact your brain all on its own, but it’s made worse when we don’t take care of our health.  Sleep is when your brain heals, but when you’re stressed it’s likely you’re not sleeping well, which exacerbates the problem. Eating unhealthy foods also increases your brain and body’s inflammatory response which makes it harder for your brain and body to process information to be healthy. Over time, unhealthy eating, lack of exercise, excessively using alcohol or drugs, or getting very little sleep adds up and makes everything harder. Along with having a harder time with working through trauma, people can develop other health conditions that make them feel less well.

Protective Factors for Toxic Stress

Resilience, or the ability to respond and grow from challenges, is not a fixed trait, and can always be increased through supports and skills that we can practice regularly. While we will always experience stress, these protective factors can help us increase resilience, mitigate the negative effects, and return our bodies and brains to baseline stress levels more efficiently, so stress does not become prolonged.

Social Support: Several studies have found that one of the biggest protective factors for toxic stress is having a stable and supportive relationship with one other person. Just having someone who we know can be there for us when we are experiencing stress makes it easier for us to handle life’s challenges and uncertainties.

Creating secure relationships and building social support can occur at any time. Try to build connections and find people who will validate your feelings and support you through hardship. Especially in times when we are forced to be isolated, it’s important to stay connected. Reach out to people you haven’t spoken with in a while, join a new online community with people with the same interests as you, and know that it’s okay to ask others for support. They may be experiencing the same stress, and your support may be invaluable to them as well.

Small Steps Towards Health:  To help reduce your body’s stress response, make sure you are engaging in healthy behaviors, like getting 7-9 hours of sleep, eating healthy foods, being active and staying hydrated. Try to avoid excessive caffeine intake or alcohol or substance use, which can increase the body’s reaction to stress. It is especially important to try to build and maintain these healthy habits during this time of social isolation, when it may be more difficult to establish a routine and keep our bodies and minds regulated.

Building Mindfulness and Gratitude: Taking time to practice mindfulness can help to recognize and accept your emotions, build resilience and buffer the effects of persistent stress in the future. You can engage in mindfulness through breathing techniques, journaling, meditation, or by downloading and using a mindfulness app to get started. Research has also shown that practicing gratitude can serve as a protective factor against stress. Listing three things you are grateful for each day can help to train your brain to focus on the good and perceive challenges as less of a threat when they arise.

Focus on Progress: Often when we experience stress, it is because we don’t feel like we have a sense of control. When a problem arises, it can be helpful to think through what part of the response you can control, and work toward solving the problem in small pieces, and celebrate even small progress. Building this sense of control and strategies for problem-solving can help you respond to new stressors that arise in the future.

Seeking Help: Sometimes part of building resilience is realizing that you can’t do it all on your own, and a trained mental health professional can help you improve building your resilience and mitigating the effects of toxic stress. Many mental health professionals are still providing support during this time through telehealth.

To find a mental health provider, use SAMHSA’s Treatment Locator here. For crisis support text MHA to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Other Resources

To learn more about how to recognize and respond to stress, click here.

If you are experiencing persistent stress and want to check if it may be a sign of an underlying mental health condition, take an online mental health screen here.