The Truth About Toxic Stress

Toxic Stress

(Pictured Above – Person struggling with Toxic Stress)

By Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline Staff

“I’m so stressed out!”

How many times do you think this to yourself or utter these words in pure frustration? Monthly? Daily?

Everyone feels stressed from time to time. Stressors can help us distinguish what is safe versus what is unsafe. At one time or another, we have all felt stress. We all know that feeling where your heart and mind races and you get that sudden rush of energy prompting you to react to whatever the situation calls for — this reaction is known as the “fight or flight” response. When we experience stress, our bodies send messages to our brains to release certain hormones that tell us what we need to do next.

Luckily, stress isn’t always a bad thing. Stress can provide the push and endurance to take action when needed. Stress can offer that little bit of extra oomph to get things done and keep moving forward. However, as helpful as stress can be at pushing us towards progress, there is a darker side to stress.

Healthy Stress vs. Toxic Stress

Stress can become unhealthy when a person is continually exposed to the things that trigger our stress response and cause trauma to the brain. This kind of stress overwhelms the senses, causing us to relive the feelings of fear, anxiety, and the negative emotions connected to past or ongoing traumatic life experiences. This emotionally-paralyzing stress is known as toxic stress.

Normal stressors are healthy.

They come and go with time and change, but toxic stress builds and stays around constantly. A brain living with toxic stress is rewired to be in a constant state of alert and danger. That overrides the ability to reason, to cope with change, and to problem-solve effectively.

Toxic stress creates a constant emotional state of walking on eggshells with no perceived relief in sight. Over time, toxic stress can wreak havoc on physical and mental health. Lost hope can usher in the dark clouds of depression and anxiety, making a person feel even more stuck.

When experiencing toxic stress, nothing feels like it is under control. We feel powerless in the narration of our own lives. It may feel like there is no way out and it will last forever … but that does not have to be the case. While we may not always be able to completely change the situation or control the reasons we feel toxic stress, there are some things we can do to help alleviate some of that pain and pressure that are within our control.

Getting Toxic Stress Under Control

Of course, immediate safety takes priority. If you feel toxic levels of stress due to physical danger, do not hesitate to reach out for emergency support and get away from the situation.

If physical safety is not an issue, the next things to consider are thoughts and feelings. Take a moment to stop, assess stressors and consider the most pressing needs. It can be helpful to ask, “Do I need to change my situation, or do I need to find a way to cope better with the situation?” and the answer can guide our next steps.

One of hardest lessons is realizing we cannot truly control the behaviors, perceptions, and reactions of someone else.

Instead, focus on the things that you can control — which is you. You can control your own perceptions, reactions, responses, and ultimately, self-care. Take small steps every day and make one positive change to your routine. We all know this is easier said than done. Toxic stress gives us tunnel vision to only see the bad, but with practice and time, things can feel less overwhelming.

Finding Help

Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that no one has to handle toxic stress alone.

Help is available, personally or professionally. People are social creatures and meant to have meaningful relationships. This means sharing the good, bad, and ugly of life with one another. Some worry about the burden they place on others, but the truth is the people in our lives truly want to be there for us when we need them. We just have to be willing to acknowledge the need for help and then ask for it. There is nothing more comforting or powerful than the words, “I understand. I am here for you. You are not alone.”

Toxic stress can make us feel like we are on a small, deserted island but we don’t have to do this alone. Reach out.

Amid the struggle of everyday life and the difficult experiences that threaten to overwhelm the body’s stress response system, it can feel like the world is ending. But we have survived 100 percent of the tough days behind us, and we are doing great. Believe that, and live with that success. With time, supportive coping skills, and the helping hand of someone who cares, dark clouds of toxic stress can and will lift, bringing on brighter days.

If you are ready to reach out for help, feel free to contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 (call/text) or by chat at For additional information on toxic stress, please explore Harvard’s Toxic Stress resource page.