What We Can Do About Toxic Stress

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Reading about the science of toxic stress for those who have experienced it can be overwhelming, or even make you feel damaged and unfixable, as though the effects might be too hard to overcome. But it’s important to know that—though the effects of toxic stress can be real and powerful—experiencing it is never the end of the story. There are things that can help, on an individual level, a community level, and a policy-making level, to lessen the effects of toxic stress.

More Information on Toxic Stress and Resilience

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As adults, experiencing toxic stress that just doesn’t let up—caused by things like violence or poverty, not being able to find a job, or not having enough to eat or a place to live—can feel overwhelming, like a heavy burden. Much like a truck that’s been loaded down with too much weight so it can’t move forward, these difficult circumstances can make it challenging to get through life. It can make you feel like you can only plan one day at a time, like you’re struggling to follow through, or having difficulty staying calm. It could also make you feel numb—like you just don’t care about anything—or like you can’t control your emotions. And, for those who care for children, these feelings can make it difficult to focus on providing the love, attention, and affection kids need to grow and thrive. But just as we can remove weight from an overloaded truck by moving cargo on other trucks or in other ways, we can bring in supports and services that help take some of the stress off people that might be causing harm.

Some of these supports can take the form of food pantries, or job training programs. They can include attending free programs or activities at local libraries or community centers, meeting up with friends and family who care, or even seeking professional help, like counseling or therapy. Doing those things can feel difficult—trying to find a therapist who takes your insurance, for example, and who can work with your schedule; or being able to squeeze in a free museum admission day with a hectic or unpredictable work schedule—especially when the problem is that it feels hard to plan things to begin with! But even things that feel very small—taking a few minutes to talk to a child you care for, or play “I Spy” on the bus with him or her, or even just to sit and breathe deeply—can make a difference.

In our communities, everyone depends on each another in so many ways. And, while it might not always seem like it at first, people’s lives are connected by threads that hold us all together. These threads grow stronger when we take on difficult challenges in our lives, such as dealing with the effects of trauma. Instead of suffering alone or trying to get better without any help or by sheer force of will, it’s important to recognize that no person is an island, and we all need the help of others in order to deal with challenges in our lives.

After some of the stress lifts, you can continue to support others in the community who may be where you were. This could take the form of helping other parents access some of the resources that were helpful to you. It could also mean joining with other community members to advocate for more community supports that you wish had been in place when you needed them. Toxic stress is never the end of the story; no one knows that better than those who have experienced it.

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