Recently I was in a virtual lecture on The Impact of Adversity & Toxic Stress by Jack Shonkoff. He was looking specifically at childhood development for sustainability. Most of the conversation centered on the effects of maltreatment on a child's development (risk factors that go beyond neglect and abuse). The conversation led to the change that happens to our biological body when we, even as small children, endure significant adversity. The truth is, even if we don't remember the trauma or the stress, our bodies remember it. In fact, studies show that the affects of childhood stress live into our bodies well into adulthood and can decrease our lifespans.
In actuality, this is the perfect moment to introduce this video, If These Cells Could Talk- Link for our Racial-Stress and Healing Documentary. My mother sent it to our family and...it's remarkable.
"But Shelby, not all stress is bad." Absolutely, true. In fact, there is positive stress. Positive stress is unquestionably needed. We do not want to shelter or block ourselves or our children from this stress - it's a part of daily life that EVERYONE must deal with. It's where we build grit. For children, it can be learning how to put on their shoes, going to the doctor, entering a new play space. Instead of blocking this stress, it's best to support others through it. "Support" meaning whatever you need it to mean.
Then there is tolerable stress. This is the stress that NO ONE wants to experience. It's the death of a family member, the natural catastrophe, an act of violence, or a major fraction in the family. This is the stress that's dependent on the people around you. It's about other's making you feel safe and secure. And when you're a child, the key to recovery post-adverse childhood experience (known as ACE) is safety, security, and healthy adult modeling. This is where a loving village of healthy adults is the ideal for healing for both children and adults.
Buuuutttt, then there is (capital T) Toxic stress. This is when your stress response system is activated consistently. It isn't turned off or down. This is when a person is under consistently stressful circumstances - most of the time multiple stressors. An example, someone experiencing low-income, familial violence, and a loved one with health issues. And what we have learned through the study of stress is that it LITERALLY tears down your body. And not only your physical body, but it can completely alter your personality. When we look at it in children we see:
"Toxic stress has the potential to change your child’s brain chemistry, brain anatomy and even gene expression. Toxic stress weakens the architecture of the developing brain, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, and physical and mental health."- Nationwide Childrens
And here is the hardest news for parents (and future-parents): our stress deeply affects the stress of our children. And when the children become adults? Toxic stress as a child increases your chances at having unhealthy relationships, and you guessed it...massively increases parental challenges. It's a dern cycle. This article on Reuters.com,really spoke to me. When discussing, ACEs and toxic stress:
"Accumulating over the life course, these effects may undermine parenting and relatedly attachment, making it more difficult to handle normal behaviors of infants and toddlers,” Folger added. “We increasingly recognize the disruptive nature of toxic stress caused by early life adversity and the importance of early intervention."
Why this matters in the middle of a pandemic?
I want to make this short. I am speaking to myself as much as I am speaking to others. Our goal as humans during this pandemic should be to nurture ourselves and do whatever we can to keep consistent bad stress* levels as low as possible for us and our loved ones (if possible).
*You will know it's bad stress because it manifest itself in negativity - trouble with sleeping, irritability, hair shedding, physical pain, weakened immune system, fatigue, a major change in eating habits, trouble functioning, etc.
This means, putting on our air masks and then looking around our community to see who needs what you can provide. Maybe it's simply being kind to an essential worker, a teacher, or a stranger. We have to rally. Building a Community is just as critical during COVID, as it was last Autumn. Yes, this pandemic has us rethinking "close contact," but there are other ways to show love, give respite, or provide acts of service. This isn't a call for martyrs, but it's a reminder of the significance of fellowship, kindness, grace & empathy (for ourselves and others) when trying to reduce not only the spread of a deadly virus, but also toxic stress.