Resilient Wisconsin: Trauma and Toxic Stress

What are trauma and toxic stress?

Two women in distress embracing.We all experience stress. At every age, our daily lives are full of situations that elevate our heartbeats and frustrate or worry us. Most of the time, we have the support and skills we need to handle challenges like the first day of school, a new job, or the loss of a family member. But sometimes, the stress we experience is so intense—or goes on for so long—that it overwhelms our ability to cope.

Trauma is the emotional, psychological, and physiological impact made by the heightened levels of toxic stress we feel when we encounter strong, frequent, or prolonged adversity. Experiences like physical or emotional abuse, childhood neglect, economic hardship, and violence or harmful substance use in the home can trigger our body’s stress response, flooding the body and brain with “fight or flight” chemicals over and over again.

The toxic stress caused by adverse childhood experiences can damage or delay the healthy development of a child’s body and brain—leaving them vulnerable to chronic health problems, high-risk behaviors and mental illness as adults.

Recognize the signs

Know the three types of stress in children’s lives:

  • Positive stress: While every child experiences stress differently, a little stress is a normal part of healthy child development. The first day of child care, meeting new people, or getting an immunization at the pediatrician’s office can cause positive stress.
  • Tolerable stress: Tolerable stress turns the body’s alert system up higher and for longer. As long as these experiences are short-term and made easier with support from caring adults, most children recover from difficulties like natural disasters and pandemics, the loss of a family member, or a serious illness.
  • Toxic stress: When the stress children feel is strong, frequent, or prolonged, it can disrupt healthy brain development and impact the way they think, feel, and grow well into adulthood. Without a nurturing environment, attention from caring adults, or other protective factors to soften the effects of toxic stress, children with adverse childhood experiences have higher risks for physical, mental and behavioral health problems throughout their lives.

Look for these symptoms of trauma in children and adults:

  • Cognitive signs: Confusion, disorientation, heightened or lowered alertness, poor concentration, difficulty identifying familiar objects or people, memory problems, and/or nightmares.
  • Emotional and behavioral signs: Anxiety, guilt, denial, grief, fear, irritability or Intense anger, emotional outbursts, depression, withdrawal, panic, feeling hopeless or overwhelmed, difficulty sleeping, changes in sexual behavior, excessive alcohol consumption, and/or temporary loss or increase of appetite.
  • Physical signs: Fatigue, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, profuse sweating, thirst, headaches, visual difficulties, clenching your jaw, and/or aches and pains. Seek immediate medical care if you experience chest pain, difficulty breathing or symptoms of shock.

Learn more

Want to learn more about how to recognize, manage and prevent the effects of trauma and toxic stress? Check out these additional resources:

Take a closer look at the essential principles, evidence-based frameworks, and best practices that help public health professionals and others understand and promote resilience in our communities and organizations, in our relationships, and within ourselves.

Last Revised: May 18, 2020