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What is toxic stress?

A professor entered his classroom with a glass of water. He held up the glass for all the students to see. The students expected a “glass half full/glass half empty” discussion was about to begin… but to their surprise the professor asked a completely different question.

He raised the glass up and asked, “how heavy is this glass of water?”

The students spoke out their estimates ranging from 8 to 15 ounces.

The professor responded. “Great guesses. I guess I would need to weigh the glass to know exactly how much it weighs, but the question I really want to know is—what if I held up the glass for 1 minute?”

“Nothing,” the students answered.

“Well, what if I hold it up for an hour?” asked the professor

“Your arms will start to hurt,” said a student.

“Right, of course. But, what if I held it up for an entire day?” he continued.

“Your arms would go numb!” shouted out a student.

“I bet you’d even feel paralyzed,” quipped another student.

“You are both right,” said the professor. “So, what should I do to avoid the pain?”

“Put the glass down,” answered a student.

“Exactly!” he said. He continued, “the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold onto it the heavier it becomes. Stress is a lot like this glass of water in our lives. If you focus on your stresses and think about them for a little while, not much will happen. If you think about them for longer, however, they’ll start to hurt. Think about them even longer and you’ll begin to feel paralyzed.”

Stress is not something we should typically carry around with us as we go throughout our day, especially if that stress begins to cause body aches and paralyzes us in our lives. It’s so important to let go of stress, especially when that stress becomes toxic.

Did you know that there are 3 types of stress?

1. Positive Stress

Yes, not all stress is bad. In fact, some stress is necessary to help us grow. Positive stress is temporary. It is our body’s response to help us accomplish a task that is needed in the moment. Then, once the task is over or completed, our body can return to its normal state. Examples of positive stress include things like getting a shot or the first day of school.

2. Tolerable Stress

This type of stress lasts longer, but we still are able to cope and eventually recover, returning our body to its normal state. Tolerable stress can happen during something like an injury, death of a loved one, or experiencing a natural disaster. This type of stress is often mitigated and buffered by supportive relationships.

3. Toxic Stress

When stress is lasting and serious, our body’s reactive in negative ways that seriously impact our mental health. In fact, lasting stress can lead to body and brain harm, causing lifelong health problems. Some types of toxic stress include things like abuse and neglect. In toxic stress environments there is an absence of protective and supportive relationships.

Common toxic stressors include:

  • Racial or cultural oppression

  • Poverty or ongoing financial hardship

  • Chronic disease or illness

  • Workplace problems and job stress

  • Family discord and conflict

  • Intimate partner violence

  • Chronic mental health issues

  • Lack of safe, consistent and reliable housing/shelter

  • Bullying

  • High exposure to crime

  • Living with a physical and/or mental disability

Toxic stress affects our bodies and minds in many ways

  • When we experience toxic stress, our brains actually lose their ability to focus. We are more easily distracted and can have trouble remembering.

  • We can become more impulsive—meaning we act without thinking about our actions and their consequences first.

  • High blood pressure and inflammation in the body increase with toxic stress.

  • Our bodies cannot fight off infections and illness as easily when we’re too stressed.

  • Stress can also lead to issues with our hormones, leading to obesity, growth delays, and developmental setbacks.

Mental Health Counseling to Address Toxic Stress

If you are experiencing toxic stress, or one of your loved ones is, then mental health treatment with a licensed counselor may be beneficial. Counseling can help people facing toxic stress to understand their windows of tolerance, manage their symptoms, and develop healthy methods of coping. Counseling can also increase support and problem-solving, which can mitigate the negative effects of stress. There are many therapy options depending on an individual’s stressor.

Some include:

  • Rehab for substance abuse and recovery

  • Outpatient therapy

  • More intensive inpatient therapy with several days a week of support

  • Medication to treat depression, anxiety or other health symptoms

  • Couples or family counseling

  • Specialized counseling (such as grief, trauma, or EMDR, etc.)

  • Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) - employers often offer programs to their employees with a certain number of counseling sessions or other wellness benefits that target stress reduction

Physical Health, Community Resources, and Toxic Stress

Physicians can also help in addressing and treating your stress, especially if you are experiencing physical symptoms from your stress levels. Seek out your doctor to learn about medications, lifestyle changes, and diagnostic procedures that can aid in reducing your stress.

You can also reach out to your community and social network to increase support. Increasing support is vital to addressing toxic stress. Some possible places to find more support to face your stressors is to seek out:

  • Parenting resources, meetup groups, & other parents facing similar challenges.

  • Education counselors for academic stress and support

  • Affordable housing

  • Victim advocacy for survivors of abuse

  • Red Cross or other disaster relief services

  • A faith group, church, or spiritual community

  • Financial aid and assistance programs

  • Legal aid

  • Rape crisis centers

  • Support groups for your specific stress concern (divorce, cancer, substance abuse, etc.)

Toxic Stress Statistics

National statistics on stress taken from

Shern, D. L., Blanch, A. K., Steverman, S. M. (2016). Toxic stress, behavioral health, and the next major era in public health. Am J Orthopsychiatry, 86(2), 109-123. doi: 10.1037/ort0000120. PMID: 26963181

  • The US had the highest rates of mental health conditions and second highest rates of substance addictions than any other country in the world

  • Compared to 16 developed nations, the US had the worst overall health outcomes

  • Compared to 16 developed nations, the US had the highest rates of deaths caused by violence, at almost three times higher than the next country

  • Compared to other nations affiliated with the Organization For Economic Cooperation and Development, the US had the highest rates of income inequality

  • Compared with 11 other developed nations, the US had the most expensive and least effective health care system

Individual statistics on toxic stress:

  • 60.7% of men and 51.2% of women will experience trauma and toxic stress in their lifetime

  • Of those who report experiencing stress:

    • 54% say their relationships have suffered or had more conflict as a result

    • 48% say stress has had a negative personal or professional impact

    • 35% report that the demands of their job or lack of work/life balance was a cause

  • Of those who reported stress, the most common physical and psychological effects were:

    • 51% reported fatigue

    • 44% reported headaches

    • 30% reported muscle tension

    • 50% reported irritability or anger

    • 45% reported feeling nervous or anxious

    • 45% reported a lack of energy

    • 35% reported feeling tearful

  • The most commonly reported sources of stress in the US are:

    • The future of the nation/politics

    • Job pressure

    • Money and financial strain

    • Health problems or illnesses

    • Relationship issues like divorce, conflict or loneliness

    • Unhealthy lifestyles including poor nutrition and sleep

    • Media overload

    • Violence and crime


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