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Understanding the role of trauma and toxic stress in the lives of children in St. Louis

Courtney Berg, of Girls on the Run St. Louis, and Emily Luft, of Alive & Well STL, joined St. Louis on the Air on Thursday to discuss the impact of toxic stress on kids.
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Courtney Berg, of Girls on the Run St. Louis, and Emily Luft, of Alive & Well STL, joined St. Louis on the Air on Thursday to discuss the impact of toxic stress on kids.

A study published last year by the Centers for Disease Control found a prevalence rate of childhood trauma and toxic stress at nearly 2/3 of the general population. The study, called the Adverse Childhood Experience study, looked at how certain experiences, such as abuse, neglect, and violence impact children with adverse outcomes.

Does that fraction of the population seem high or low to you?

“Measuring prevalence rates is difficult, but what I can tell you is that, in conversations and trainings with individuals in the community, no one ever tells me when I say that prevalence rate and they think about our community in St. Louis, that that rate is too high,” said Emily Luft, program director of Alive & Well STL, an initiative of the St. Louis Regional Health Commission.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Luft as well as Courtney Berg, LCSW, the executive director of Girls on the Run St. Louis, joined host Don Marsh to discuss the science behind trauma, toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences and new ways to look at toxic stress.

Trauma and toxic stress are two different things, Luft said, but they are interrelated. You can think of trauma as moments that are real or perceived threats to our safety. The key word there is moments.

When it comes to toxic stress, you can think of it as more pervasive. They don’t necessarily happen in a moment in time.

“The things in our life like poverty, living in violent communities, not knowing where your next meal is going to come from, in our body, that triggers the same physiological reaction as if a bear entered the studio right now,” Luft said.

Toxic stress impacts children biologically, Berg added, saying it is important for people who work with children to understand this kind of stress.

“What gets fired, gets wired,” Berg said. “Think about if you were watching a scary movie 24/7 — that’s exhausting. Your body is conditioned to respond that way, and therein lies a lot of the health issues we see.”

Luft said that when a child experiences trauma or recurrent traumatic events, a certain part of the brain fires, triggering flight, fight or freeze responses.

“That response is great in helping us survive,” Luft said. “When that response keeps getting turned on, over and over, cortisol and adrenaline, instead of being released for short periods, are released for a long time.”

Such release leads to systemic inflammation which increases a child’s risk for chronic disease. It also changes a child’s capacity to regulate emotional response. Most importantly, however, it changes how the brain itself gets built — the actual anatomy of the brain.

So, what makes toxic stress different from regular kinds of stress we experience daily?

Luft said she likes to think of it in three levels:

In the first level, some stress is good. It helps children build resiliency and helps them learn to bounce back.

In the second level, the stress is tolerable. It is usually not helpful but it can still be dealt with.

In the third level, toxic stress overwhelms a child’s ability to cope. Once it is activated and becomes chronic, children are left without the time or skills to regulate such stress.

Luft said a key right now is for people to be aware of what toxic stress and trauma is and that it impacts all kinds of communities in St. Louis. She said it is important for people to not “diagnose” or look for particular signs of such trauma, but rather work to build open communication between children, parents and caregivers about what could be impacting a kid’s behavior.

Girls on the Run is trying to address this issue by doing trauma-informed coaching and mentoring with their girls. Baked into their program is the building of self-esteem and resiliency with girls, from third through eighth grades, to help them make healthy choices in life.

Next week, the program is sponsoring a film screening of “Resilience,” a film about stress, for free at the Missouri Botanical Garden in order to further the conversation among families. 

Related Event

What: Girls on the Run St. Louis Presents Resilience: The Biology of Stress & the Science of Hope
When: Thursday, March 2 at 5:45 p.m.
Where: Missouri Botanical Garden’s Shoenberg Theatre, 4344 Shaw Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63110
More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.