Toxic stress, at any rate. The human body’s response to normal amounts of stress—say, a bad day at the office—is likely to be brief increases in the heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. But a toxic stress response, stemming from exposure to a major shock or prolonged adversity such as physical or emotional abuse, can wreak far more havoc.
In children, science now shows that toxic stress can disrupt the developing brain and organ systems.
The accumulated lifelong toll of stress-related hormones sharply raises the risk of chronic diseases in adulthood, ranging from heart disease and diabetes to depression and atherosclerosis.
Thus, the message from a panel of experts to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Commission to Build a Healthier America was at once simple and challenging: Create a healthier environment for—and increase coping mechanisms and resilience in—the nation’s most vulnerable and stress-ridden children and families.
At a June 19 meeting in Washington, DC, the commission heard testimony from a child development specialist, an economist, and community development professionals, among others. Together, they described more of the social and economic effects of toxic stress, but also the evidence that significant investments in individuals, families and communities can turn the tide.