Tolerable Stress vs. Toxic Stress

This post is done in partnership with, an initiative of the Center for Youth Wellness, but the opinions expressed are my own.

For the past two months, I've shared my own stress health story and also a story about how my husband grew up. But this month, I want to share how stress can affect children. Just as a reminder, toxic stress can result from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and can affect lifelong behavior and even have lasting and tragic consequences.

A few years back, our family decided to go horseback riding for the first time. I called a few stables to see if they could accommodate us for the day and one stable said they could. We drove there, picked our horses and even brushed them before mounting up.

Mary mounted up with the stable owner since she was only seven years old at the time. Paul and I both had our own horses and we all set off on our ride. The ride was very nice at first because it was through the woods, but during the middle of it, Paul and I both noticed that the horses really liked to charge. It was getting harder to keep them under control, but the stable owner wanted to go around one more time.

After the second time around, we got to a clearing where the horses could see the barn up a steep hill. When my horse saw the barn, he took off at full speed uphill. I knew if I stood up to pull the reins, I might fall off and break my back or neck. So I held onto the horse's neck as tight as I could and pulled the reins. But it wasn't working, and I started slipping off to the right side of the horse. Just then, my DSLR camera that was around my neck flew up and hit me straight in the nose. And then everything went black. When I woke up, I was on the ground and blood was running down my entire face. I started screaming for Paul, and he jumped off his horse with such force he broke his reigns in half. When he got to me, he knew my nose was broken. Mary had witnessed the entire thing. They both got me to the car and sped to the hospital where I found out I had a concussion, a broken nose and a broken rib. 

After that accident, Mary was never the same. As she got older, she started getting scared if I left the house without her. Now it is at the point where I can't leave her. I know she's scared that if I leave, I could get hurt again.

This is a "tolerable" stress that we have to help her work through together. It's been years since the accident, and healing a stress doesn't happen overnight. I do know, however, that with our help, she will overcome it. A tolerable stress is a response to a serious problem, like an accident. When there is a loving adult there to help, that will calm the child's stress response. In this case, me and my husband are able to help. 

There is another kind of stress called toxic stress. Toxic stress is triggered by childhood trauma such as abuse or neglect and can persist into adulthood; without intervention, it can have severe and lasting effects. When I first watched this video from Stress Health, I immediately understood how devastating it could be.


In the video, the boy is stuffing all the baggage from his bad childhood into the closet. And that's how so many of us treat our past ,too. We bottle everything up inside until it has nowhere to go. With Mary, we were able to talk about how she felt, and we told her it's okay to cry. Mindfulness is an important tool in coping with toxic stress.

You can get rid of toxic stress but it's not an overnight thing. It will take time and care.

If you think you or your children might be suffering from toxic stress, you can learn more about it at the Stress Health website.