Toxic Stress and Foster Youth

What is toxic stress?

You can read more about toxic stress here, but to sum it up toxic stress occurs when children are exposed to strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support (source).

How does toxic stress affect me now?

Toxic stress may affect your life in many ways. Because your stress response is always on,  you may be in a state of high alert, even when there isn’t any actual threat. As a result, you may find it hard to sleep at night or have difficulty focusing in school or staying organized at home. You may engage in impulsive or risky behavior or find yourself acting aggressively towards others. You may also have poor coping skills and stress management.

You may find yourself overreacting to everyday problems.  Dealing with bad traffic? Have a dispute with a roommate? Get a disappointing grade in a class? Your brain is flooding you with stress hormones like cortisol, causing you to overreact to even perceived slights.

This cute little cold virus will make you miserable.

Toxic stress exposure may also reduce your immune system, making you more vulnerable to any little cold or flu virus that’s floating around. Toxic stress can also lead to minor annoyances like headaches, migraines, and even back pain. Over time, toxic stress can cause serious health problems though, like hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease.

This is terrible! What can I do?

Learn to relax. Seriously. You have to learn how to shut off your body’s stress response. Work with a doctor to learn relaxation techniques such as biofeedback or guided imagery. Some people benefit from regular yoga or meditation practice.  

You don’t need fancy equipment or a gym membership to do yoga either. If your school has a gym, you may be able to take yoga classes for free. Search on youtube for a yoga video that interests you. There are also apps for your phone that can guide you through a yoga routine.

Avoid stressful situations.  Avoid situations aggravate you. If you were engaging in an activity that kept hurting you physically, you’d probably stop doing it, so why treat your mental health any differently? For example, students often tell us that going home for the holidays is a trigger for them. If you feel this way too, then find an alternative for the holidays.

Seek help. You are not alone and you do not have to face this alone. Make an appointment with a counselor. Your school may have a counseling office.

Keep your body healthy. Try to eat a balanced diet. Exercise at least 20 minutes a day. Aim for 7 hours of sleep a night (or more!).

Form healthy, supportive, stable relationships. Relationships are key. This can be hard. You may need to cut people out of your life – temporarily or permanently. But you may also need to open yourself up to new experiences and find new ways to meet people: join a club at school or volunteer with a cause that you care about.