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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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What We Can Do About Toxic Stress: From Surviving to Coping to Resilience

Building resilience and strength in families and communities is one of the most important investments we can make as a society. But what does that mean?

Experiencing stress that doesn’t let up can be harmful to people’s lifelong health and wellbeing, especially if it begins when they’re young. Without supportive relationships, it can
become what scientists call “toxic stress.” Nobody knows this better than those who have experienced it.

But that’s not the whole story. With the right supports, toxic stress doesn’t have to lead to bad outcomes. We all know that everyone copes with stress differently— even children. Understanding how stress affects each of us is the first step toward making changes in our communities and our own lives that can help everyone thrive.

Toxic Stress Can Feel Like a Heavy Weight, But Communities Can Share the Load.

As adults, the effects of stress caused by things like experiencing violence, or not having enough food or a place to live, can feel heavy, like a burden that makes it hard to get through life. This stress can put a person into a constant state of “fight or flight” response, which makes it unusually difficult to plan or follow through, or to stay calm. Feeling this way can override a parent or caregiver’s ability to provide the supportive relationships children need, or even to do things that help relieve the burden.

Just as a truck can only bear so much weight before it slows down or stops moving forward, challenging life circumstances can weigh caregivers down and make it hard to do the things they need and want to do. And just as carrying too much for too long can cause a truck to break down, people can wear down from being overburdened without support.

But just as we can remove cargo from an overloaded truck, we can provide supports and services that allow caregivers to focus on caring for themselves and their children. And just as we can do regular maintenance to keep a truck in good shape, regular access to these services can help families manage the load during challenging times.

Supporting Each Other, Building Resilience

Under this kind of stress, it can be difficult to focus on the fact that the most important thing your children need is love, affection, and attention, along with clear limit setting. Spending more time playing and snuggling with them, talking to them, or taking walks and exploring together are tools you can use to help connect.

If your stress is making it hard to do these things—if your truck is just too overloaded—reach out for help. Resources like food pantries or free activities can help lift stress. Connect with parents, friends, or family who care, or seek help from a professional so you can get back to nurturing your kids. And when you’re out of crisis, you can help others in your community, by letting other parents know that their loving attention can make the biggest difference for their kids, or joining in advocacy to expand family supports.

The threads that connect us all can grow stronger when taking on difficult challenges, and those ties can lessen the burden of toxic stress. No person is an island; everyone needs the help of others in difficult times. And toxic stress is not the end of anyone’s story.

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