“If I ignore my past, I affect my future, and risk recycling ACEs.”
When youth are traumatized, especially by guardians, their brains develop differently to survive the trauma. Which means their brains change to process reaction times faster or slower or not at all. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has labelEd this type of trauma as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) & measured it into three categories:
Childhood abuse: emotional, physical, and sexual;
Neglect: both physical and emotional; and
Family dysfunction: growing up in a household where there was substance abuse, mental illness, violent treatment of a mother/stepmother, a parental separation/divorce, or a member of the household went to prison.
As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk of developing*:
Alcoholism & alcohol abuse
Illicit drug use
Poor work performance
intimate partner violence
Multiple sexual partners
Sexually transmitted infections
Early initiation of smoking
Early initiation of sexual activity
Poor academic achievement
*For more outcomes visit: selected journal publications.
What is toxic stress?
In times of stress, our heart beats faster, our blood pressure increases, and adrenaline and cortisol (the stress hormone) surge through our system to make us stronger, faster, and more alert. This is our body’s way of reacting to a trigger, and depending on what it’s learned is best in that situation, you will fight, flee, or freeze. But, this response was only meant to happen for brief periods. In a chronically stressful environment, the body's stress response is always on.
If the brain is constantly exposed to a toxic environment, it will shut down to protect itself. The brain continues to work, but it’s rate of growth slows down, creating a vulnerability to anxiety and depression. The earlier the exposure, the longer the effects unless resiliency is learned and practiced in every day life.
Toxic stress not only impacts our health, but also our wealth and ability to break the cycle. Unless we bring attention and action to unpacking and understanding our childhood traumas, our triggers are bound to repeat into unhealthy beliefs and behaviors, potentially self-sabotaging partnerships, whether business, platonic or romantic.
What is a Trusted Adult?
Youth can't always avoid stress – the loss of a parent, a bitter divorce, conflict at home – but research has shown with the support of a Trusted Adult, a person who is empathetic, responsive and stable, the physiological effects of the stress response can be softened, minimizing the risk of long-term damage.
A Trusted Adult can put stress into context by explaining how it happened, how often it will happen and whether it will happen again. This is an important part in helping youth see the world as less threatening and to provide them with a sense of empowerment and the capacity to influence their environment; to be seen and heard.
Thankfully, biology and history are not destiny. Many of the effects of toxic stress can be reversed. Relationships are key and having a healthy, supportive, reliable one with a Trusted Adult has an extraordinary capacity to strengthen people – children and adults – against the damaging effects of toxic stress.