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UK Neuropsychologist Shares the Science Behind ‘Toxic Stress’

Neurologist Dr. Timothy Ainger is discussing toxic stress and will appear in a KET special report on healing childhood trauma. Photo by Pete Comparoni | UKphoto
Neurologist Dr. Timothy Ainger is discussing toxic stress and will appear in a KET special report on healing childhood trauma. Pete Comparoni | UKphoto

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 10, 2020) — Most of us have heard the phrase that some stress is good. Timothy Ainger, Ph.D., assistant professor in the University of Kentucky Department of Neurology, says the word ‘some’ is key. Ainger specializes in neuropsychology which is the brain-behavior relationship. He says it is true that a small to moderate amount of stress or pressure does help a person focus and perform at their best.

Everyone’s sympathetic nervous system responds to stress in different ways and is multifaceted; pupil dilation, heart rate increase, release of glucose and bronchial dilation…to name a few responses. Ainger says after the resolution of a stressful scenario we unconsciously engage our parasympathetic nervous system to help reverse these actions to return us to homeostasis. “That is the way the stress response is supposed to work,” said Ainger.

However, he says stress starts to become a problem when there is difficulty focusing on responsibilities, forgetting tasks, making sacrifices in quality for the sake of efficiency, and feeling that you are unable to get back to normal. Ainger says that is a sign of becoming overwhelmed and often leads to a repeated stress response by the body without the ability to return to homeostasis. This is often referred to as ‘Toxic Stress’.

Navigating the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is bringing various changes to everyday life for most people that includes the potential for increased stress. “It’s important to differentiate between 'normal' and 'expected,'" Ainger said. "Having a prolonged, stressful response to a situation in our environment isn’t something that should be a part of our 'normal' but given the factors at hand, experiencing stress right now would certainly be expected. 

"We are out of our routines and comfort zones.  We are having to think more on our feet and adapt to an ever-changing world.  We have to be extremely vigilant for new risks all day long. These factors would have a deleterious impact on our ability to cope and wellbeing in an acute situation, let alone a chronic one. The short-term effects are mental and physical exhaustion, disengagement, and risk for burnout. The long-term effects are yet to be seen, but the risk has the potential to amplify the longer this goes on.” 

He says, in his opinion, there are two key things people should do to prepare for high levels of stress. The first is exercising good insight and being able to recognize the symptoms. “Know what stress does to you, what triggers it, and what happens when you are hitting peak levels. Practice noticing your ‘red flags’ so they can act like warning signs on the road before you actually get to the hazard.” Ainger says it is basically being able to acknowledge you’re becoming stressed before you become overwhelmed.

The second key according to Ainger is engaging in self-exploration to find effective coping strategies. “The worst time to try and learn first aid is after the emergency has happened. Knowing ahead of time the things you need to do in order to achieve short and long-term wellbeing — and practicing them whenever you are able — can prepare us to deploy them when we really need them. These skills differ from person to person; whether it is exercise, meditation, reading, practicing a skill or hobby, and so on.”

All of this is not only important for adults themselves to keep in mind but also for if they are around children on a regular basis. “Kids get a great deal of information about the world and how to handle things from those in their environments, so parents can mirror positive healthy coping skills for their children.” Ainger says children do obviously express their emotions differently from adults; anxiety, panic, sadness, and stress may look different in a child than in their parent.

Ainger says studies do show that chronic, unmitigated stress in children who are in unstable environments are more prone to develop chronic mental and physical complications.  He says because of this it is paramount that adults try to help children find stability where they can, especially during the current pandemic when much of what they see as ‘normal’ is in flux.

"Children are very observant. They see the world changing around them. They will know their educational and social lives are different. Help them to understand things in ways they can understand and process,” said Ainger.

Ainger is sharing the warning signs of toxic stress and the best ways to mitigate the stress during Healing Childhood Trauma: A KET Special Report which is set to air on KET Aug. 10 at 8/7 p.m. Ainger is joined by advocates and other medical experts including Ginny Sprang, Ph.D., executive director of UK’s Center on Trauma and Children. The special will also be available to stream on KET’s website.

“I think education is the silver bullet,” said Ainger. “Before we can begin to solve complex problems, we must first understand them. People need to hear and learn about healthy environments and behaviors so they can begin to implement changes in their own, and their children’s lives. This type of report is not meant to scare people, it is meant to educate people on a subject with which they may be unfamiliar.”

Ainger says most importantly, especially considering what the past several months have entailed, don’t be afraid to ask for help. “In these strange times, it is easy to become overwhelmed and not know what to do. Reach out to your support network in COVID-safe ways. Call friends and family, have video chats and talk to others about how you are feeling. Don’t be afraid to contact a primary care provider or mental health care provider for recommendations. There is no shame in getting assistance.”

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