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The Long-Term Impact of Deep Stress on Children

August 22, 2018

Everyone understands stress. We work too hard, play too hard, and get little to no sleep. We’ve got too many balls in the air and ignore self-care, resulting in deep stress. As a result, everything suffers—our mood, health, and work. Minor problems feel more significant, and our reactions to anything from waiting in a grocery line to how we are with our partners and kids are out of whack. However, there are many solutions to relieve stress. We can shift our priorities, get more sleep, allocate time to rest, exercise regularly, eat healthier, drink less, and be more mindful. 

Where Does Deep Stress Stem From?

Many solutions can improve our stress reactions. We can shift our priorities, get more sleep, allow ourselves to relax, exercise, eat healthier, drink less, and be more mindful. When the stress you’re experiencing isn’t a result of everyday life, it’s typically emotional stress, which stems from growing up with parental addiction, neglect, or abuse. Therefore, we must understand our past, present, and future emotions play in our stress cycle and how to fix it. 

As a psychologist, I’m aware that we still haven’t adequately wrapped our minds around this subject. There’s a saying in 12-step programs, “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical,” meaning that if your reaction to any given stressor is more significant than the actual circumstance warrants, there’s some past, unresolved pain that’s likely driving it.

ACES and Toxic Stress 

Researchers conducted the ACE study, evaluating the link between ACES and toxic stress. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have a long-term impact on mental and physical health. Originally, researchers from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente were looking at which factors drove health care costs up, made people go to the doctor more often, and make claims on their insurance. The result was that growing up with emotionally and psychologically painful experiences was one of the strongest predictors of health problems later in life—hence the coining of the term “ACE factors.” ACEs tend to cluster. Rob Anda, lead researcher on the CDC study says, “Once a home environment is disordered, the risk of witnessing or experiencing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse actually rises dramatically.” 

Painful childhood experiences that don’t get resolved at the time they occur can lead to toxic or chronic emotional pain, impacting all mental and physical health issues. They also increase the number of doctor’s visits, and health care costs skyrocket. Although they’re emotional issues, the body processes them as physical ailments—anything from chronic back problems, gastrointestinal issues, heart problems, etc. What might have started as all in your head has worked into your body’s muscles and organs. What occurs with your feelings impacts your mood and overall health.

Emotional Stress, Mental Health, and Addiction 

In the last few years, mental illness and addiction became reimbursable as a result of the Affordable Care Act, which included mental health parity. Until then, there was little to no insurance coverage for mental health and substance use disorders. Furthermore, we’re still insisting that the body and mind are separate entities. Many thought that what went on in your mind had nothing to do with your physical well-being. As it turns out, emotional and psychological experiences throughout your life significantly impact your overall mental and physical health. 

Emotional stress impacts how you feel about yourself, your relationships, your life, and your future. It’s pressure from within, and it’s unconscious and chronic enough to surface in your body. Deep emotional stress can be experienced as anxiety, depression, hyper-vigilance, intense emotional reactions, withdrawal, and post-traumatic stress disorder  (PTSD). However, it’s not grief. Rather, it’s the absence of it and can be experienced as a physical ailment. 

The Long-Term Impact of Stress on Children 

According to the Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child (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, 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 significant 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 preoccupied with their problems that the child was left to comfort themselves with little or no help from the adults around them? Were the adults in that child’s world the ones who were causing the stress, as is the case when there is parental abuse, neglect, addiction, absence, or mental illness? 

In this case, kids are at double risk. They’re not only being hurt, but the people they’d usually turn to normalize and help them out of their pain and stress are the ones creating it. This can lead to chronic or toxic stress. As a result, we might not be able to process, learn, and grow from the experience and develop resilience without the help of a caring adult. Some kids can but most receive help and support from a caring adult. 

The Result of Child Resilience 

The cardinal finding in most research on resilience is that resilient kids have at least one adult who cares about them and can turn to consistently for a sense of safety and support. This person values them, wants the best for them, and can help them learn how to mobilize the support they receive to summon the inner strength and self-value to move forward.

Wong and Wong’s research on resilience identifies at least three prototypical patterns that resilient people appear to display, occurring in various contexts depending on the individual. These patterns develop as individuals meet life’s challenges. They are dynamic, constantly evolving qualities rather than ones residing within the individual. They consist of the ability to:

  • Recover: Bouncing back and returning to normal functioning.
  • Remain Invulnerable: Remaining relatively unscathed by adversity or trauma.
  • Experience Post-Traumatic Growth: Becoming stronger after overcoming life’s challenges.

When a child is left to understand their painful experiences, they give meaning to their pain. All too often, that meaning includes a sense of being inadequate or unworthy of good treatment. Some can bounce back, but those that thrive can use the world around them as a resource rather than withdraw from it. Most children receive some form of help. However, if the stress is chronic and emerging in adulthood, it becomes the adult’s responsibility to find and take responsibility for their healing.

Activities to Alter Your Stress Response 

  • Education

Find books and google articles on ACES, Adult Children of Alcoholics/Addiction (ACoAs), and trauma. I have two books, Emotional Sobriety (also has workbook) and The ACoA Trauma Syndrome, covering the waterfront.

  • 12-Step Programs

12-step programs are free, easily accessible, and they offer the information and support needed to take further steps. They also normalize deep stress because that’s what most people are there for. 

  • Therapy 

Individual and group therapy are beneficial, particularly psychodrama. I’d take advice from those who might also be on this journey, whom you’ll meet in 12-Step rooms. Trust your gut. You must have a good connection with your therapist and be comfortable opening up around them.

  • Exercise

Walking with friends four times per week is a research-based solution for depression. According to studies, it’s as effective as a medication because it increases serotonin flow into your bloodstream. Relationship connection also contributes to health and well-being.

  • Nutrition

If you eat food, throwing your body chemistry into chaos will impact you emotionally. Familiarize yourself with healthy carbs, low sugar, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and healthy meats if you eat them. Enjoy yourself but in a healthy, mindful way.

  • Spirituality

Whether it’s meditation, church, temple, Mosque, or 12-step programs, spirituality centers you and provides you with a sense of community that’s inherent to human nature.

  • Down Time 

Adequate sleep along with rest and downtime decreases stress levels throughout the day and inspires an entire movement. The mindfulness movement is sweeping the country as people figure out how critical mindfulness is to living a happy and productive life. 

It’s essential to remember that it’s progress, not perfection. Take everything one day at a time, and remember to enjoy the journey because it’s constantly improving. There’s no harm in testing the water to see 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