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What is toxic stress?

Stress on its own isn’t a bad thing. Our body’s stress response is designed to give us a boost of energy and increase focus so we can better tackle the task at hand.


  • Positive: Imagine being a child walking into class for a big test or onto the field for an important game. Our heart pumps faster and our palms sweat. This helps engage our body for the task ahead - and things return to normal once the situation is past.

  • Tolerable: This is a more intense level of stress brought on by challenging situations, like experiencing a natural disaster or a big life change. As children, a caring adult can buffer this stress and make it easier for us to process the event.

  • Toxic: The stress response turns toxic when the challenging situation doesn’t end, or when there is no adult to help us process what we’ve been through. When our stress response stays active too long, it can hurt our body and brain, and even affect our behavior.

As children, ACEs can cause us to develop a toxic stress response. Living in poverty, or in a violent neighborhood, or dealing with discrimination can also cause a toxic stress response.

It’s important for parents, caregivers, and other adults who care about children to know that we can buffer and support kids who are experiencing adversity.

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