Stress is a normal part of life that no one can fully escape. However, when stress becomes toxic, it can affect our lives in drastic fashions that may change our life’s outcome.

Adverse childhood experiences tie into toxic stress and both can cause considerable harm to both children and again when these kids grow to become adults.

This article will explore the connection between toxic stress, ACEs, and how understanding them through the polyvagal theory can help us to find ways to defeat them.

What is Toxic Stress?

Childhood should be a time of playtime, learning, and laughter but too often it is filled with fear and helplessness. When children experience frequent and prolonged stress, such as occurs with being physically, mentally, or sexually abused, they will exhibit what is known as the toxic stress response. This is especially true if there is no adult support or intervention.

The toxic stress response happens because of the stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system and a cascade of neurological, endocrine, and immune responses that produce physiological effects.

Under extreme and repeated stress, the child’s cortisol level is persistent and causes a permanent inflammatory response that can harm their organs even after the abuse has stopped. (Franke, 2014)

The Effects of Toxic Stress on Children and Adults

Under normal circumstances, children exposed to stress will respond positively after the stress is over by their body’s sympathetic nervous system returning to baseline. However, if the body is not capable of returning to baseline, the toxic stress response can become permanent and cause numerous health problems later in adulthood.

The adverse health effects may include:

  • Poor coping skills
  • Mental illness
  • Physical illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and obesity
  • Maladaptive coping skills
  • Poor stress management

(Shank, et. al. 2012)

One of the most dramatic and tragic physical changes that occur as a result of toxic stress is how it changes the child’s brain. Having the brain awash in stress hormones such as cortisol can and does do damage to the brain cells allowing them to have fewer connections. Fewer connections between neurons signify that the brain cannot develop normally leading to a multitude of problems later in life.

(National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2014)

The Effects of Toxic Stress on Adults (The ACEs Study)

Between the years 1995 to 1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teamed up with Kaiser Permanente to examine how adverse childhood experiences affect people across their lifespan. The research measured the link between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and outcomes later in life.

In the research, they had over 17,000 participants who completed a simple questionnaire asking for details on their past including any history of abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction plus what types of behavioral and health problems they might have had.

This research demonstrated that childhood stress impacts adult health and show a link between ACEs and a myriad of health problems in adulthood including any if not all of the following:

  • Alcoholism and alcohol abuse
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Depression
  • Illicit drug use
  • Ischemic heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • The risk for intimate partner violence
  • Multiple sexual partners
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Smoking
  • Suicide attempts

(Middlebrooks & Audage, 2008)

Clearly, ACEs and its neighbor toxic stress cause great harm to both the child who is experiencing the trauma and again when they become adults. (Shonkoff, & Garner, 2012)

How Understanding Polyvagal Theory Can Help

Polyvagal theory gives insights into how the human body adapts and responds to stress and danger.

The theory emphasizes how the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems work together to rev us up to run or fight and calms us after the danger has passed. When these two functions are out of whack the body never has the chance to calm down and back to its resting state.

The theory also underscores the fact that physiological states such as fight, or flight support different behaviors and influence how the body responds to future threats. (Porges, 2009)

The understanding of polyvagal theory leads to a better understanding of how childhood trauma leads to behavioral problems in the present as well as problems in the future. This is especially true for pediatricians, therapists, and other caregivers that encounter children regularly because they are the people who can recognize and intervene when children need help. (Beauchaine, Gatzke-Kopp, & Mead, 2007)

How Polyvagal Theory Explains the Long-Term Effects of Toxic Stress

Dr. Porge’s polyvagal theory explains that for a human being, especially a child, to thrive, they must have a sense of safety. Without this unwavering knowledge that they are safe, children develop responses with the autonomic nervous system that are harmful and lifelong.

Without a sense of safety, the amygdala, a small almond two-sided region in the brain, become hypersensitive and sees danger everywhere even when that danger is not real. (Sanders, & Hall, 2018).

For instance, a child is afraid to go to sleep and feels endangered because at night they experience abuse that occurs after the child has fallen asleep. They wake up to have unmentionable things being done to their bodies and learn that being in bed and sleeping is not what they wish to do. Their amygdala, hippocampus, and autonomic nervous system never have the chance to return to baseline thus they feel unsafe all the time.

This inability to feel safe translates into a hypersensitive/hyperalert status leading to mental health problems such as anxiety and panic attacks. It also leads to physical problems such as heart disease or stroke.

In Closing

The only way to defeat an enemy is to recognize it. That is why polyvagal theory is so important as it gives us a window of understanding of the outcomes of toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences that we’ve never had before.

Part four in this series on polyvagal theory will be about using Dr. Porge’s theory to better understand ourselves and to heal from the toxic events of the past.

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” ~ Sun Tzu


Beauchaine, T. P., Gatzke-Kopp, L., & Mead, H. K. (2007). Polyvagal theory and developmental psychopathology: Emotion dysregulation and conduct problems from preschool to adolescence. Biological psychology, 74(2), 174-184.

Franke, H. A. (2014). Toxic stress: effects, prevention, and treatment. Children, 1(3), 390-402.

McLaughlin, K. A., Rith-Najarian, L., Dirks, M. A., & Sheridan, M. A. (2015). Low vagal tone magnifies the association between psychosocial stress exposure and internalizing psychopathology in adolescents. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 44(2), 314-328.

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper 3. (2014)

Porges, S. W. (2009). The polyvagal theory: new insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic journal of medicine, 76(Suppl 2), S86.

Sanders, M. R., & Hall, S. L. (2018). Trauma-informed care in the newborn intensive care unit: promoting safety, security, and connectedness. Journal of Perinatology, 38(1), 3-10.

Shonkoff, J. P., & Garner, A. S. (2012). Committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health committee on early childhood, adoption, and dependent care section on developmental and behavioral pediatrics the lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, 129(1), e232-e246.


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