Sep 14

The toxicity of stress

A recent CNN article titled, “’Toxic stress’ can harm your child” by Nadine Burk Harris, discusses how chronic stress in childhood due to adverse experiences can cause a slew of health concerns.  According to Harris, a Pediatrician who works in one of San Francisco’s low income neighborhoods, chronic stress can affect brain and body development; increasing the chances of developing chronic pulmonary obstructive disease in addition to other chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes.  She states that research has discovered that these same children will possess increased inflammatory markers as adults.

Stress has been defined as “a particular relationship between the person and the environment that is appraised by the person as taxing or exceeding his or her resources and endangering his or her well-being” by Lazarus and Folkman (as cited in Schneider, Gruman, & Coutts, 2012, p. 183).  Their view is called a transactional model of stress (Schneider, et al., 2012) and supports Harris’ claim that “toxic stress” is chronic stress caused by negative experiences.  Lazarus and Folkman would call these experiences “stressors” since their model states that some experiences induce stress and others do not (Schneider, et al., 2012).

While Harris mainly refers to negative experiences common to low-socio economic areas, they are not confined to those areas alone.  Lazarus and Folkman state t  hat experiences are appraised by the individual and that “no two people will experience [a situation] in exactly the same way” (Schneider, et al., 2012, p. 183).  Additionally, some researchers argue that stress is not only a result of negative experiences, stating that positive experiences can also cause stress (Schneider, et al., 2012).  For example, a study involving couples planning their wedding illustrated high levels of stress when compared to other typical couples (Schneider, et al., 2012).  These findings could imply that children may experience “toxic stress” even when involved in positive experiences –again, if the individual appraises the experience as stressful.

If stress is perceived by the individual, the next step in the transactional model is coping –which “refers to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that people engage in when trying to reduce stress” (Schneider, et al., 2012, p. 184).  Similar to the way in which each individual appraises an experience as stressful or not, so too will be determine their coping mechanism (Schneider, et al., 2012).  However, coping mechanisms can be generalized in two categories: problem-focused and emotion-focused (Schneider, et al., 2012).  Problem-focused coping refers to when an individual is direct in dealing with the issue; whereas emotion-focused coping refers to when an individual adjusts their emotions to offset the feelings of stress (Schneider, et al., 2012).  Harris suggests that by simply interacting with children in positive ways such as talking and playing, it will support healthy development.  Her approach aligns with problem-focused coping since it is action based and deals directly with the problem.

Ultimately, research agrees that stress can negatively impact health; which agrees with the last stage of the transaction model: health outcomes (Schneider, et al., 2012).  Harris’ argument also aligns with these findings, indicating that children with “toxic stress” are more susceptible to many chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.  Research findings by Sarafino (2002) and Brannon & Feist (2000) concur, illustrating higher incidences of health issues that ranged from headaches and asthma to respiratory diseases and infectious diseases (Schneider, et al., 2012).  It is safe to say that stress is something everyone should be wary of.  When faced with a stressful experience, it is imperative to control the situation through a coping mechanism of choice.  If stress levels are controlled, it can positively impact one’s health and longevity.


Burke Harris, N., (2014, September 26). “Toxic Stress” can harm your child. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/26/opinion/harris-toxic-stress/.

Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., and Coutts, L. M. (Eds.) (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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