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Toxic Childhood Stress

Melissa counts herself lucky any month she doesn't have to pick her father up from the cops. Still, as soon as she pushes the door open at home she's flushed with a heavy feeling of dread. This flush of feelings is the body's response to stress. And, as a teenager living in a house ruled by her father's alcoholism, she has been the persistent victim of dysfunction.

Since she's been ten, her father has lost a total of eight jobs and has been involved in three DUIs. Even when things seem to be stable, Melissa has that dark feeling of something lurking just around the next corner. When a person, especially a child or teenager, feels threatened, whether physically or emotionally, their bodies release cortisol. Studies show that the victims of a dysfunctional household adapt to the constantly erratic conditions and their bodies continue to excrete low levels of the stress hormone cortisol. As the days pass this feeling increases and her nights become longer and sleepless.

Melissa's nightmare doesn't end when her father is sober. The child of someone who is dependent on drugs or alcohol doesn't get to experience that the escape that addict chases. She feels the stress from the last hangover to the next binge. Those children who have lived through a traumatic event or period of life become hyper-vigilant, constantly on the lookout for the next horror. And the effects that the constant stress has on a person may cause permanent damage.

Prolonged exposure to cortisol has shown to impact the immune system. When that child who grows up in a constant state of worry they may experience a poor quality of life. From loss of jobs due to sickness to loss of motivation or interest in daily life, the continued low level response to chronic stress may permanently alter the brain chemistry. Substance abuse, depression and anxiety disorders are common among survivors of abuse, family dysfunction, neglect and physical or sexual trauma.

Cortisol has also been shown to impact the hippocampus, the area of the brain that controls learning and memory. Damage results in learning disabilities and could lead to early termination of schooling and impede the process of learning career skills. The stress from lack of steady income later in life will further perpetuate the cycle. Those children of dysfunction are at a greater chance of having their own children who struggle with similar issues. Also, weight gain is common when cortisol levels are elevated. Stigmas against overweight people can lead to further isolation and social insecurities. Stress is more serious than just having a bad day or week.

Survivors of childhood abuse and trauma continue to suffer the consequences of others' actions long after they leave the source of their stress. While these experiences cannot be erased completely, early intervention and professional guidance can repair what was broken and recover what was lost. Many schools have started to implement workshops and programs targeting stress related to home environments. The need for school psychologists is at an all time high.

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