Got one or more of these? Keep reading……

Everyone knows about stress. We work too hard, play too hard and sleep too little. We’ve got too many balls in the air and ignore self-care. No me time, no downtime. The result we’re stressed out! And everything suffers, our mood, our health, our work….to say nothing of everyone around us. Small problems feel bigger and our reactions to anything from waiting in a grocery line to how we are with our partners and kids are out of whack.

For this kind of stress there are many solutions out there; shift priorities, get more rest, sleep and downtime, exercise, eat better, drink less and pay some attention to more mindful living.

But what about when the stress is emotional, when the stress is not a result of normal life stressors that get handled in normal lifeways, but it stems from growing up with parental addiction, neglect, abuse or neglect? What role do our emotions, past present and future play in our stress cycle then, and what’s the fix for that?

As a psychologist, I am aware that we still haven’t adequately wrapped our minds around this subject. There’s a saying in twelve-step programs, “if it’s hysterical, it’s historical” meaning that if your reaction to any given stressor is way bigger than the present day circumstance warrants, there is some past, unresolved pain that’s likely driving it.

There was an excellent study done called the ACE study. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have a long-term impact on both physical and mental health. Originally researchers from the Center for Disease Control (CDC)and Kaiser Permante were simply looking at what factors drove health care costs up; what made people go to the doctor more often and make claims on their insurance? Well, it turns out that growing up with emotionally and psychologically painful experiences were one of the strongest predictors of health problems later in life, hence the coining of the term ACE factors. And ACEs tend to cluster; “once a home environment is disordered, the risk of witnessing or experiencing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse actually rises dramatically”, says Rob Anda lead researcher on the study from the CDC.

Painful childhood experiences that don’t get handled at the time or near the time they occur can morph into what Harvard researchers call toxic or chronic emotional pain and can impact all health issues across the board, physical and mental and…… you guessed it….. they increase the number of visits to the doctor and health care costs skyrocket. And here’s a key point, although they are emotional issues they read in the body as physical ailments, anything from chronic back problems, gastrointestinal issues, heart problems etc. In other words, what may have started out as “all in your head” has worked it’s way into the muscles and organs of your body. What happens in your feelings not only impacts your moods, it impacts your health.

Amazingly it is only in the last few years that mental illness and addiction became reimbursable thanks to the Affordable Care Act passed by Congress in 2008 which included mental health parity. Until then there was little or no insurance coverage for mental health and substance use disorders and we were still insisting that the brain/mind and body were totally separate entities; that what went on in your mind had nothing to do with your physical well being. Big mistake, as it turns out that what goes on in your growing up years and throughout your life emotionally and psychologically has everything to do with your state of health and your….yes…doctor visits.

Emotional stress then is the kind of stress that impacts how you feel about yourself, your relationships, your life and your future. It’s pressure from within and the kind we’re talking about here is the kind that is unconscious enough, intense and chronic enough so that it surfaces in your body. Deep emotional stress can be experienced as anxiety, depression, hyper-vigilance, intense emotional reactions, shutdown or withdrawn and of course, PTSD, to name a few. It is not grief, rather I’d say it is the absence of grief where grief was needed. Or it can be experienced as we said earlier as a physical ailment.

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2015). “the toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences 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. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”

This notion of “adequate adult support” is a big one here. Were there adults in a child’s world who they could turn to for comfort, reassurance, and stability in times of stress or were those adults so preoccupied with their own problems that the child was left to try to comfort themselves with little or no help from the grown-ups around them? And to take that point even one step further, were the adults in that child’s world the ones who were actually causing the stress; as is the case when there is parental abuse, neglect, addiction, absence or mental illness? In this case, kids are at a double risk. Not only are they being hurt but the people they’d normally turn to find their way out of pain and stress, to normalize it and explain to them what’s going on, are the ones creating it. So this kind of stress can become chronic and toxic. And we may not be able, without the help of a caring adult, to process it, learn and grow from experience and develop resilience. Some kids can but when you scratch the surface they usually got some kind of help. Or they had an unusual and inborn ability to turn even a TV show into a sense of positive direction and normalcy, “God bless the child who’s got his own!”

But the cardinal finding in virtually all research on resilience is that resilient kids have at least one adult who cares about them, they can turn to on a consistent basis for support and a sense of safety, someone who values them and wants the best for them. Someone who can help them learn how to mobilize the supports in their world so that they can summon the inner strength and self-valuing to soldier ahead.

Wong and Wong in their research on resilience identify at least three prototypical patterns that resilient people appear to display, which may occur in different contexts for different individuals. These are developed as individuals meet life challenges; they are dynamic, constantly evolving qualities rather than qualities residing only within the individual. They are the ability to:

  1. Recover: To bounce back and return to normal functioning.
  2. Remain Invulnerable: remaining relatively unscathed by the adversity or trauma.
  3. Experience Post-Traumatic Growth: they bounce back and become stronger as a result of overcoming life challenges.

When a child is left to understand what has happened to them that has hurt or even terrified them all by themselves, they come up with the meaning that they are capable of making at the time that they were hurt. All too often that meaning includes a sense of being bad or unworthy of good treatment. Some are more able to bounce back than others, but generally, those that thrive have the ability to use the world around them as a resource rather than withdraw from it. Most according to research have help in some form. But if the stress is chronic and emerging in adulthood then it becomes the adult’s responsibility to use the resources that they can find and take responsibility for their own healing.

So What Can You Do About It?

Here’s where you start:

  • Educate Yourself: Find books and google articles on the subjects of Adverse Childhood Experiences, Adult Children of Alcoholics/Addiction (ACoAs) and trauma. I have two books, Emotional Sobriety (also has a workbook) and The ACoA Trauma Syndrome that will cover the waterfront.
  • Twelve Step Programs: Twelve-step programs are free, they offer the kind of support and information that is needed to take further steps, they normalize deep stress because that’s what most people are there to deal with and they are easily accessible. There’s a twelve step program that you can probably fit into if you look and ask around.
  • Consider Therapy; both one-to-one and group, consider psychodrama. Here I’d take advice from those who might also be on this journey, you’ll meet them in twelve step rooms. Go with your gut, it’s important that you have a good connection with your therapist and that you’re comfortable (enough) opening up around them.
  • Exercise: Walking with friends 4x/week is a research-based Rx for depression. According to studies, it is as effective as medication as it gets serotonin going into the bloodstream and relationship connection is way up there too as a factor that contributes to health and well being.
  • Nutrition: If you eat food that is throwing your body chemistry into chaos, it will impact you emotionally. So get familiar if you aren’t already with healthy carbs low sugar, veggies, fruit, legumes and healthy meat if you eat it. Enjoy yourself but in a healthy, mindful way.
  • Lean Into Your Spiritual Life: Whether it’s meditation, church, temple, Mosque or twelve-step programs, a spiritual life gives you that center and sense of community that’s so important to us humans and there is a lot of meaning and value added as well.
  • Create Down Time: Sleep “knits the raveled sleeve of care” and has for a long time apparently as it’s Shakespeare who said it. Adequate sleep along with rest and downtime means that you carry so much less stress around throughout your day that it spawned a movement. The mindfulness movement is sweeping the country as people figure out how crucial mindfulness is to happy and productive living.

So it’s progress not perfection, take it a day at a time and remember to enjoy the journey because this is a journey that gets better all the time. No harm in sticking your toe in the water and seeing what’s out there for you that can enhance your life and the lives of those you love.


Anda, R. F., V. J. Felitti, J. Walker, C. L. Whit!eld, J. D. Bremner, B. D. Perry, S. R. Dube, and W. H. Giles. 2006. “The Enduring Effects of Abuse and Related Adverse Experiences in Childhood: A Convergence of Evidence from Neurobiology and Epidemiology.”

Dayton, Tian (2007) Emotional Sobriety: From Relationship Trauma to Resilience and Balance, Health Communications, Deerfield Beach, Fla.

Dayton, Tian (2016) The ACoA Trauma Syndrome, Health Communications, Deerfield Beach, Fla.

Werner, Emmy — Protective Factors and Individual Resilience: Handbook of early intervention, 2000

Wong, P. T. P. & Wong, L. C. J. (2012). A meaning-centered approach to building youth resilience. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 585–617). New York, NY: Routledge.

Written by:  

Tian Dayton, MA, Ph.D., T.E.P