A Guide to Toxic Stress

Chances are, you’ve heard or read something about toxic stress—maybe from the media, from a physician or other medical professional, or from a family member, friend, or neighbor. You may feel overwhelmed by all of the toxic stress information out there. And, unfortunately, it’s very easy to find misleading or incorrect information. The Center on the Developing Child created this Guide to Toxic Stress to clear up the confusion and help you learn the facts about toxic stress step by step.

Step 1: Toxic Stress 101

If you’re short on time or just need a quick introduction to toxic stress—what it is, how it’s different from other types of stress, and what it can do to development and health—start here:

Toxic Stress

Learn about toxic stress response, how it differs from two other stress responses, positive and tolerable, and how it can be prevented or even reversed.

Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development

Graphic showing how toxic stress overtaxes the cardiovascular system

This 2-minute video explains how toxic stress can weaken the architecture of the developing brain, with long-term consequences for learning, behavior, and both physical and mental health.

ACEs and Toxic Stress: Frequently Asked Questions

Icons of a toddler and two babies

What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)? In this infographic and FAQ, learn about ACEs and toxic stress, and how to prevent or reduce their lasting harm.

Step 2: The Science and Social Causes of Toxic Stress

Now that you know the basics, it’s helpful to dig a little deeper into what exactly happens in the brain and body as part of the toxic stress response and what can cause it.

Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain

Working Paper 3 cover

This working paper from the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child defines the concept of toxic stress—what happens when children experience severe, prolonged adversity without adult support.

InBrief: The Science of Neglect

Black and white photo of a worried baby behind crib bars

This 6-minute video explains why significant neglect is so harmful in the earliest years of life and why effective interventions are likely to pay significant dividends in better long-term outcomes in learning, health, and parenting of the next generation.

Social and Behavioral Determinants of Toxic Stress

In this science talk, David Williams looks at the social and behavioral factors that play a role in triggering toxic stress for children and adults.

Step 3: Preventing and Addressing Toxic Stress

Toxic stress is a very serious issue, but it is not the end of the story. No matter who you are, there are concrete actions you can take to help prevent toxic stress and support those who have experienced it. Find out more about resilience and a series of articles on tackling toxic stress.


Science tells us that some children develop resilience, or the ability to overcome significant adversity, while others do not.

Tackling Toxic Stress

“Tackling Toxic Stress,” a multi-part series of journalistic articles planned and commissioned by the Center, examines how policymakers, researchers, and practitioners in the field are re-thinking services for children and families based on the science of early childhood development and an understanding of the consequences of adverse early experiences and toxic stress.

Stress and Resilience: How Toxic Stress Affects Us, and What We Can Do About It

Animated woman with squiggly ball of stress over her head

In this video, learn more about what toxic stress is, how it can affect you, and what you can do—both by yourself and in connection with your community—to deal with what you’re experiencing. Because even when toxic stress is caused by things you can’t control, like poverty, abuse, or racism, there are still ways both big and small to help you cope.

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