Toxic stress

What is it?

Stress is an emotional and physical reaction in our bodies to feeling threatened.  It is our bodies way of keeping us safe and alive if we are in danger.  Hormones and chemicals are released when we experience stress so we can jump into action and stay alive, many of us will know this as fight, flight or freeze response.’ These stress hormones and chemicals can be turned off or balanced out in the presence of a protective relationship.

There are different types of stress

  • Good stress which is good for us making us alert and helping to build resilience.
  • Tolerable stress which is a serious stress response but it is soothed by a trusted emotionally available adult.
  • Toxic Stress is the same as tolerable stress but it is a response that is not soothed or switched off by a supportive adult. There are no protective relationships in place.

The more children experience stress the more their body is programmed to be on high alert further perpetuating the flooding of toxic stress in the body.

When we are experiencing stress we are in survival mode, we can’t learn and we can’t manage our behaviour, our instinct is to just survive.

Dan Seigel has a useful hand brain model that can help us to think about what happens to our brain and bodies when  under stress. Can we click it from the image?

You can’t see when someone is experiencing toxic stress and feeling permanently under threat. However, it’s likely to affect the way they respond and behave.

Stress hormones affect how the brain grows or doesn’t grow at all which impacts on learning, concentration, impulse control, empathy, the ability to reflect and to be able to interact socially.

As adults working with children:

  • We may not know what has triggered survival mode.
  • We may not know they are in survival mode.
  • All behaviour will be different and will need different strategies used on our part.
  • We must remain emotionally available for that child to help them gain the skills needed to bring themselves out of that mode and strengthen the calm side of their brain,
  • Children may self soothe themselves e.g rocking, smoothing, kicking, fiddling, flapping, verbal stimming

A child who has experienced trauma who has had scary, frightening things happen to them such as loss and separation from their family; if they have not been loved or cared for in the way they should of been, their body remembers how bad these things felt so it can protect them from feeling or getting hurt again. As children get older, when they experience something even a little bit similar to those past experiences, their body remembers and transports them back to this time to when they experienced those feelings, sights, sounds, smells. This is the body’s way of telling them that it is in danger and needs protecting. Their body reacts quickly and sends it into fight, flight, freeze or collapse. To everyone else it might not seem like there is any danger.

The long term effects of toxic stress can have impacts in all areas of life, physically, mentally and socially.  Toxic stress explains how ACES can affect us.  This clip shows how toxic stress can affect the developing brain.


Source – Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University

The first thing we can do is have an understanding of the different types of stress responses that our children are showing us.  Fight and flight are easier to recognise but freeze, fawn and flop may not be so obvious.  When we are faced with a child who is in survival mode we need to start communicating with them where their brain is at, deep down in the primitive brain where they are hiding to survive.  Bruce Perry talks about the R’s, ‘Regulate, Relate and Reason,’ we first need to regulate their stress response in order to move them from their primitive brain to their emotional brain, then relate and connect with them as an emotionally available adults moving them into the thinking  brain where it they are at the right place to be able to reflect, learn and talk about what happened.   For some brain stem calmer activities to move children from their primitive brains please see the calming activities link.

‘What Survival looks like in school document’ although targeted at children in school is a really supportive document regardless of age.  It details each state of state of stress, what it looks like, what the child is aware of, how their body feels, what’s happening in their inner world and ways in which we can make children feel safe.

There are many different ways that we can work to regulate children through a reflection of our environment and timetable, are any times or spaces that are triggering for children?

Nature is hardwired into brains and bodies.  Playing in nature allows children to breath more deeply, connect more easily with others and learn to regulate both fear and excitement as they discover bugs, slippy ice or climb a tree.

Sensory play activates another good chemical – oxytocin.  This is an anti-anxiety and anti-aggression chemical and can be a really powerful way of bringing down toxic stress.

One of the most powerful ways of helping children with toxic stress is talking about what is bothering them.  Just us listening brings these stress levels down, helping a child to find the words especially with young children and their developing language skills is really important.  Being able to reflect on a child’s mental state is a way of making that link between what a child is feeling and being able to name and speak about that emotion.  Feeling understood, makes us feel connected releasing those good chemicals in the brain, bringing toxic stress levels down. Children who have experienced regular, empathic listening are better able to learn, use life well, concentrate, enjoy relationships and be kind to others.


Beacon House Therapeutic Services & Trauma Team | 2021 |

Download Survival in Schools Document


Early Learning Contacts

Nicola Theobald, Lead for Early Years Partnerships
Kate Hubble, Early Years Improvement Officer
Kate Irvine, Early Years Improvement Officer, Early Years Consultant
Beth Osborne, Early Years Consultant
Ali Carrington, Early Years Consultant