Robin Karr-Morse Discusses the Effects of Toxic Stress

There are times when we use words or phrases so often that their full impact gets lost in their repetition.

We’ve dedicated ourselves this month to making sure that this doesn’t happen with a term we use often, toxic stress.

Its meaning is profound. Just consider what Webster’s Dictionary says:

Toxic: extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.

Stress: a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.

This then is not a term that we use casually, because its impact on our children and on our community is profound and far-reaching.

Stress is Unavoidable but Not Always Harmful

Stress is an inevitable part of our lives, and sometimes, it even helps us cope with difficult situations. Caring parents and caregivers help children understand how to deal with stress in healthy and productive ways, but problems develop when stress becomes persistent and intense and continues for an extended period of time, particularly in a child’s first few years when the brain is developing and circuits are extremely susceptible to harm.

Toxic stress is a regular companion for children living in families where abuse, neglect, and dysfunction are part of everyday life. Unfortunately, for Memphis, many of the factors that make for hostile environments for early childhood development are closely associated with growing up in poverty, which is where about half of all children born each year in Memphis start their lives.

Many Factors Contribute to Toxic Levels of Stress

These children grow up with fewer books and games, they hear fewer words, and they are likely to be uprooted more frequently. By the time they arrive at school, their kindergarten readiness and social emotional development lag far behind their middle-income peers. Because of this, as we work toward preparing all of our children for kindergarten, it’s hard to think of a challenge that is more important for us, as a people, to tackle than toxic stress in children’s lives.

That’s why we have invited Robin Karr-Morse, author of Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence and Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease, to speak February 16 at 3 p.m. at University of Memphis University Center. No one better explains the research, the risks, and the results about how toxic stress triggers physical and mental health issues that have created a major public health crisis in our city and in our nation.

As Ms. Karr-Morse says: "The first years of human life are more important than we ever realized." In Scared Sick, in an easy-to-understand way, she connects, psychology, neurobiology, endocrinology, immunology, and genetics to demonstrate how chronic fear in infancy and early childhood — when we are most helpless — lies at the root of common diseases in adulthood.

It’s a timely presentation for Memphis and important for every Memphian. We invite you to join us at the University of Memphis, where parking is free at the Zach Curlin Garage just east of the University Center. It’s a presentation that will be informative and fascinating and it’s not one you will soon forget. RSVP to Susan Day at 901-385-4242 or send us an email with our contact form.

Toxic stress is an issue that must be high on our community’s agenda, and we begin by understanding the full impact of the term as we work to give every child a fair start in life.