Stress is an issue that impacts everyone. Regardless of your age, your income level or where you live, stress affects the health and well-being of every single person on this planet.
Children oftentimes are the most susceptible to stress. Parents or caregivers will attest to hearing at some point from a child that some experience is the most traumatic event to ever happen to them. Adults often feel the incident is overblown, but in the context of a child’s short life and limited experiences, that situation might indeed be the most traumatizing event in his or her young life.
Each child is different and has their own level of tolerance for stress. Through the science of studying Adverse Childhood Experiences, researchers have been able to classify stress at three different stages: positive, tolerable and toxic.
Positive stress can actually be a good thing. According to research by Harvard University, “this a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunization.”
Tolerable stress is not considered good for the body, but it is also not something classified as life-threatening in the long term. Again, according to Harvard, “tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree, as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.”
Toxic stress, the area in which the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA) and partners from the Potts Family Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and others working to increase awareness regarding the issue in Oklahoma, has a tremendous impact on the person feeling it. Harvard says that a “toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”
Unfortunately, Oklahoma ranks at the top of the list for multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences impacting children. Our children are more than ten percent more likely than the national average to suffer from traumatic conditions. That childhood trauma carries over to adulthood, meaning Oklahoma also has higher than normal issues with mental health, incarceration and lower life expectancy.
OICA is working to implement a task force of experts to make legislative recommendations and policy modifications to help reduce the conditions which trigger toxic stress. Through preventative measures, we are confident this early investment will lead to better outcomes and reduce the long-term burden on taxpayers who end up footing the bill for high incarceration rates and poor health.
The legislative vehicle for creating this task force is Senate Bill 1517. Please contact your legislators and ask them for their support of this bill as it makes it way through the legislative process.
If we can understand and address toxic stress with our children today, we can improve the long-term health and well-being of an entire generation of Oklahomans.
By OICA CEO Joe Dorman