Healing childhood adversity: Why toxic stress has lasting effects

Jun 23, 2018

Adversity isn't something that's exclusive to our youngest generation, but when it occurs early in life, toxic stress can have lasting effects. Things like divorce, death, substance abuse or sexual assault can create both mental and physical issues down the road.

Pediatrician Dr. Darcy Lowell is founder and CEO of Child First. Child First is an organization that helps struggling families build strong, nurturing relationships with the goal of healing and protecting children from the impact of trauma and toxic stress. Lowell spoke to us on "Take Care" about why this type of stress is toxic, its lasting effects and how to help our children.

Stress is a normal part of life, while toxic stress occurs on a different plane. It's chronic and overwhelming. Toxic stress is often the result of severe hardship or circumstances -- extreme poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, and more.

"Those kinds of things are extraordinarily stressful in a child's world," Lowell says.

She says the most important factor is a caring adult.

"That is the factor which differentiates stress that is toxic -- and really damages the developing brain -- and tolerable," Lowell says.

"We've got to realize how important early relationships are and not dismiss them."

Even in difficult situations, our guest explains, a nurturing relationship with an adult can change a child's experience.

It was fairly recently, late in the 20th century, that medical professionals began to understand how damaging toxic stress really is. The brain does a lot of developing in the earliest years of life.

"Many of the cells are already in place, but it's the connections that are happening that are at an unbelievably rapid pace," Lowell says. "Some have even quoted a million per second."

A stressful experience disrupts that process -- it deregulates the metabolic system.

"At the same time, what we know is that the environment is absolutely critical to how these connections are made and how really the architecture of the brain develops," Lowell says.

Nature and nurture combine in this process to determine the future mental and physical health of the child. During early development there are multiple processes occurring simultaneously: changing of the genes, wiring of the brain and death (potentially) of brain cells. All of that, according to Lowell, determines whether or not we all reach our full potential.

Recovery

"The recovery ... it's not so much the stress itself, it is whether or not there is this nurturing, responsive relationship to prevent that stress from overwhelming the child's stress response system," Lowell says.

Changes can be made, even after traumatic experiences, but it's a lot harder.

At Child First, they have a different way of treating toxic stress. Their focus isn't just on the child, but on the child in the context in the relationships and environmental stressors.

"We need to do two different things simultaneously: We need to both help that family, with all of the kinds of stress that they're experiencing, because that stress gets directly related to that child ... [and] we need to work on that protective relationship," Lowell says.

It's a two generation approach that aims to prevent future damage.

"We've got to realize how important early relationships are and not dismiss them," she says.