Stress, Distress, and Toxic Stress

  • What is the difference between Stress, Distress, and Toxic Stress?

    How do I help my child deal with stress?

    Stress can be good:  it can spur us into action, like the stress of meeting a bear in the woods. Your body prepares to run or fight, and you are alert, focused, and ready for action. Stress is short-term, and when it’s over, your body and brain return to a calm state.

    Stress is normal when something is challenging but manageable. Don’t try to take away all the stresses and struggles in your child’s life - that denies them the chance to feel the triumph of accomplishing something challenging and growing in the process.

    Whether it’s a test, the struggle to catch up in school, a heavy workload, a sports competition or friendship problems, allow your child to struggle. Be a listening ear for them to problem solve, but make sure the work is theirs.

    • Don’t be a snowplow, trying to smooth away all obstacles from their path, so they never experience failure or frustration - this makes them think they’re not capable.
    • If you’re more excited or upset about a grade or the score of a game than they are, you may be too involved.
    • Praise effort, not success.
    • If you let them deal with frustration and solve their own problems, they will learn ways to cope and bounce back when things get tough.
    • Lead by example - when you experience stress, show self control and problem solving.  

    Distress is more severe (like the death of a loved one, or personal injury) or prolonged (like a long illness or the process of conflict, separation, and divorce).  

    Distress is when the amount of stress is more than you can manage on your own. You feel overwhelmed.  

    It may start to impair your thinking, or lead to stomach problems or back pain.

    A child or adult in distress needs someone to help them through it.

    With help, you get through it and then there is a new normal.

    Toxic Stress
    Toxic stress keeps happening over a long period of time, it may be more or less permanent, and you have no control over changing it. It’s like a bear lives in your house, and you feel fear or stress all the time.

    Examples of toxic stress:

    • Having an unpredictable parent, due to mental illness or substance abuse.
    • Poverty.
    • Being abused.
    • Witnessing a pattern of abuse or violence.

    If toxic stress happens over a long enough time, the constant stress hormones change the brain and the body, resulting in behaviors like being quick to anger or having a lower level of focus.

    For children, the best defense against these hardwired changes is a supportive relationship with any one person who cares about the child – a parent, teacher, coach, grandparent, or another important person in the child’s life. This one person can be the island of calm in the child’s life.

    Adults experiencing toxic stress need support, too, to build resilience and reverse the effects of stress.
    Check here for a video about How Toxic Stress Affects Us, and What We Can Do About It 

    (from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University