What Is Toxic And Healthy Stress?

We’ve talked a lot about stress on the MudRoom in the past, if you want to catch up on what has been said you can totally find that information on the blog. Whenever I talk about stress, I inevitably get multiple people either getting defensive about the idea that their child could possibly be stressed or having practical panic attacks, over the idea that their child is stressed because stress is toxic. I wanted to talk about the concept that all stress is toxic, because not all stress is toxic!

There are 3 kinds of stress, 3 levels of energy expenditure.

First there’s positive stress. Positive stress is brief (10 hours, not 10 minutes), it is healthy and normal. This is the kind of stress we experience when we’re doing everyday hard things: taking a hard test, doing something new that scares us, sleep training, starting a new daycare or school, learning to play independently, public speaking, meeting new people, etc. These are hard things that last a couple of hours and then they’re over. 

What makes this stress positive is not its duration, but the support of secure relationships before and after we do it. Adult example: we have friends amp us up before we go on an interview for a job we really want, we go do the interview – it’s really hard and we have no idea if they liked us or not, and then afterwards we go home and our spouse gets us a drink and asks how it went. The secure relationships in our lives are there before and afterwards and we feel supported and celebrated and loved. 

Notice I put sleep training in this category. Because proper sleep training is generally a one to two hour period of distress. We prepare them for it, we sing them songs, we read a book and give them snuggles, and then we leave the room and shut the door and they have 1-2 hours of distress before they fall asleep at the most, and then in the morning we’re there, we’re happy, we’re loving on them and giving them kisses and hugs and praise. They experienced a brief period of stress but were still supported by their secure relationships. They weren’t in danger, their basic needs were met, they just did something hard. 

Same with playing independently, parents often freak out when I suggest that they leave their child in their play room for an hour to figure it out. If you’re “loving on them” before, they’re fed and dry and not in any form of danger, and then you come back and you’re loving on them again. They did something hard, but they were still supported by their secure relationships. This kind of stress is extremely beneficial because it gives our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems practice experiencing distress and recovering. 

The more we practice that, the more resilient our nervous system gets, and eventually stops experiencing acute stress from events we do frequently. I used to sweat out doing these MudRoom classes. I was nervous and terrified. But the more I did them, the less stressful they became, the less energy they took to do, and now the MudRoom is just a normal part of my week, so I no longer experience acute stress from it. 

Same thing with sleep training, it’s hard at first learning how to put yourself to sleep! But the more they do it, the better they get at it, and before you know it they’re 4 and saying things like “I think I need a nap to help my body heal” after they scrape their knee and then putting themselves down for a nap. Positive stress becomes less stressful the more it happens.

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Second, There is Tolerable Stress

Tolerable stress is more prolonged stress, but is still buffered by our positive, secure relationships. Things like the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, witnessing a car crash, divorce. These are more prolonged events that have more of a sustained effect, but we are still supported in navigating them by our friends, family, and the systems around us. 

If your grandmother dies, most workplaces are going to give you the week off so you can grieve, cope, be with your secure relationships, and recover. When I was in early intervention I was driving to a client’s home to take them to preschool and I witnessed a man on a motorcycle get run over by a cube van – I called my boss in tears, who then gave me the afternoon off, and I went home and cried to my husband and forbade him from ever buying a motorcycle. That was tolerable stress. Will I ever forget seeing that? No. But I was able to cope with it with the support of my spouse, my workplace, and my friends. 

An example of my sons experiencing tolerable stress is about this time two years ago I woke up with a UTI. I knew as soon as I woke up I had a UTI, called my doctor before I even got out of bed, and then immediately got in a shower so I could go to the lab so I could get a prescription. And while I was in the shower I passed out and my oldest, who was 5 at the time, found me. He panicked and called my Mom, who called 911, and then she called a local friend to come get my kids because my husband was out of town at the time. So first he found his mom unconscious in the shower, then all these strangers swarmed the house, and then they had to stay at the house with a random police officer until my friend could get here, and then they went to stay with her until my Mom got here. 

Those are big and sudden stressors for a 5 and 3 year old! But it was still tolerable because my Mom was facetiming with them and reassuring them, then my friend showed up and they’re familiar with her and felt safe with her, she took them to her house and loved on them. Even the police officer, who they had never met, was supportive and helped them talk about what happened and got them their favourite foods and put on a TV show they liked – she loved on them as best she could with kids who were total strangers to her. It was stressful! But it was tolerable. 

This kind of stress is also healthy for us to experience, as long as it’s not too frequent. They do take longer for us to recover from, they have a deeper impact than positive stress, but they aren’t traumatic. They can become traumatic if they happen too frequently and we don’t have a proper support system that is protective and supportive though.

Last, we have toxic stress.

Toxic stress occurs when we have adverse events or exposures that are uncontrollable, unmanageable, and/or unmediated by caregiver or community supports. This kind of stress results in biological or psychological changes that may reduce the opportunity for healthy learning and development. This is what parents seem to think all stress is. In reality, if your child is in a loving, supportive environment with secure attachments – it isn’t. 

Stress becomes toxic when it is prolonged, intense, and frequent. Your body’s fight or flight response is activated constantly. There is an absence of supportive relationships to help you cope and co-regulate with you. This is neglect, abuse, ongoing unchecked mental health crises, household violence, medical crisis without support. What separates toxic from tolerable is the frequency, duration, and supportive and secure relationships. This is the kind of stress that affects development and health, because there is a frequent and ongoing activation of the stress hormone response.

When I say your child is stressed, I am not implying that you are hurting them, neglecting them, or that you are in any way, shape, or form damaging your child. What I’m saying is that they are just exhausted from expending too much energy on positive stress. And that’s a very fixable problem! That is what I help you do in ParentAbility – figure out what’s causing your child to become stressed and limiting their ability to recover, and help you either get rid of it or build your child’s coping skills around it. Because it’s exhausting! 

I’m sure you’re aware that exhausted children aren’t their best selves, and stress takes a lot of energy, even if it’s positive. Using our executive skills takes energy. Ensuring our children have as much energy as possible, ensures they’ll have the capacity to behave as well as possible. This is one reason I harp so much on predictability and consistency – because those two things reduce a tonne of stress! Now I know this can be overwhelming, so to get you started I wanted to offer you my free scripts for managing crazy-making behaviour. These are a great jumping off point for some ways you can reduce your child’s stress during 10 really common everyday occurrences.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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