When children get stuck in “fight or flight” mode, it can cause long-lasting changes in the brain and body.

Stress is an inevitable part of life — and childhood is no exception. Everyday stressors may include the first day of school, falling down and getting hurt, catching a bad cold, or having to give a class presentation.

When stress comes in manageable doses, and there are loving adults to help ease and buffer the pain, stress can help children grow and develop into stronger, more resilient human beings.

But when the stress response is prolonged, and there are no loving caretakers to turn to, children can develop toxic stress.

Childhood stress can occur anytime a child is required to adapt to something new. This could be a positive change, such as joining a new sports team or a difficult experience like a parental divorce.

The stress response, or “fight or flight,” results in a number of physiological effects, including an increased heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and overall oxygen use.

In most cases, these physiological effects are temporary with the body returning to baseline once the stressor is removed. But when children get stuck in the “fight or flight” feeling, it can lead to toxic stress.

Experts distinguish among three types of stress responses: positive, tolerable, and toxic. Importantly, these describe how the body responds to stress, not the severity level of the event itself.

  • Positive stress response. This is part of healthy childhood development. It’s characterized by a brief, mild increase in heart rate and hormone levels (cortisol and adrenaline). Examples might be the first day of school or getting a vaccination at the doctor’s office.
  • Tolerable stress response. This is a more severe stress reaction that occurs in response to more significant, longer-lasting problems, such as a severe accident, parental divorce, or the loss of a loved one. If the body’s alert system is only activated for a limited period of time and is buffered by loving relationships with caregivers, then the brain and body can recover from what might otherwise be toxic effects.
  • Toxic stress response. This can occur after severe and prolonged adversity — such as abuse, chronic neglect, parental substance use disorder or mental illness, or severe poverty — without the loving support of an adult. This type of prolonged stress exposure disrupts a child’s brain development and increases the risk for stress-related disease and long-term cognitive impairment, even well into the adult years.

According to 2014 research, when a child has a loving, supportive relationship with an adult, it “buffers” the potentially toxic effects of stress.

When we experience love and care, our bodies release a hormone called oxytocin. This important chemical helps produce feelings of love, attachment, trust, and safety.

Research from 2020 revealed that oxytocin exerts significant stress-reducing effects. In fact, oxytocin attaches to the same brain structures as cortisol – but oxytocin is more potent because it can protect children at the cellular level.

Stressors can be emotional, physical, or environmental, all of which can equally impact the child’s stress response.

Severe stressors in a child’s life may include the following:

Research shows that toxic stress leads to long-term cortisol activation and a persistent inflammatory state with an inability to return to baseline after the stressor is gone.

Toxic stress, particularly when it’s triggered by multiple stressors, increases the risk of emotional, behavioral, and cognitive problems.

Some signs of toxic stress may include the following:

In some cases, the body adapts to being in a chronically stressful environment. Rather than constantly pumping out stress hormones, it puts on the brakes. The body produces lower levels of cortisol and becomes less reactive to daily stressors.

When a person no longer experiences the typical cortisol spike when something stressful happens, researchers call it a “blunted stress response.”

A blunted stress response can lead to hyper-responsivity of other stress systems. In fact, it’s often associated with behavioral problems including the following:

In some cases, children who experience toxic stress are at greater risk of long-term adverse health effects that may not be noticeable until adulthood.

These health effects may include the following:

  • maladaptive coping skills
  • poor stress management
  • unhealthy lifestyle
  • mental illness (depression)
  • physical disease (diabetes, heart disease, altered immunity)
  • substance use disorders

The same research study supports an integrative approach for preventing and treating toxic stress in children. This may include traditional types of therapy (if affordable for families), mind-body techniques, parenting programs, and strong community resources.

The following therapies are beneficial for children and families with toxic stress:

Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy are time-intensive therapies and require an instructor with years of experience. However, research has shown that mindfulness therapies are quite effective for the following:

  • decreasing anxiety
  • improving mood
  • strengthening feelings of well-being
  • relieving psychological distress

Other mind-body interventions that can help tap into the body’s relaxation response include the following:

Interestingly, interventions focused solely on the parents or caregivers are also quite effective. Improving parenting skills and strengthening relationships so that a child feels safe in their own home is important for avoiding toxic stress.

Parenting and family programs may include the following approaches:

  • parenting classes
  • home visits to improve parenting practice
  • telephone support
  • family-based programs
  • access to social resources for parents
  • peer support
  • caretaker skill building classes

Community-based approaches, such as recreation centers that strengthen neighborhoods, can also be effective at buffering the toxic stress response in children. Children participating in community and outreach programs show long lasting behavioral and health benefits.

Early intervention programs, such as Head Start, may also positively affect a child’s development and give them exposure to positive experiences. These programs decrease the chances of hunger — something many children would experience if they stayed at home.

Childhood stress can occur anytime the child experiences change or adaptation. And while some stress can be helpful for growth, children who get stuck in a state of “fight or flight” may be more vulnerable to developing mental and physical illnesses.

Research reveals that when children experience an extreme and long lasting stress response — and are also lacking a comforting caregiver – it can result in an altered brain structure and weakened immune system with lifelong effects.

Having a loving caregiver, however, can significantly buffer toxic stress and protect the child from a range of illnesses.