California’s Surgeon General on the science of toxic stress

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 The coronavirus pandemic may have significant and long term impacts to our health, even if we don’t test positive for the virus.  Recent research has shown that trauma and stress can impact our health by altering our brains, our immune systems, and even our genetics.  

California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris tells KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian that in addition to the stress of the virus, worries about school closures and stay at home measures can have a devastating impact, particularly for those who are isolated or for whom their home is not a safe place. Children pose a special concern, she says, because they “no longer come into contact with those in their community who might recognize that a child needs help.” 

The findings of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, a 2010 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, struck Burke Harris. “When we're exposed to a stressor or something traumatic, during childhood," Burke Harris says, "the body releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which change the way our brains, our hormonal systems, our immune systems and even our DNA ultimately functions.” These are what scientists now call the “toxic stress response.”  

Today Burke Harris researches how the coronavirus pandemic affects people's feelings of isolation. “Connecting to other people releases healthy hormones that help to combat the stress response,” Burke Harris says. Without socialization, self-care is the most important way to combat the harmful stress hormones, she says, which includes regular exercise, good nutrition, sleep and mindfulness.  

The accumulation of pandemic-related trauma and stress also has an impact on mental health. Burke Harris says it is “absolutely critical” to seek help if you are feeling anxious:  “This is not a time to be shy about seeking mental health care.”.  California offers a  mental, behavioral and emotional well-being guide for those who need help.. 

Burke Harris says that the practice of mindfulness and meditation is also key to aiding recovery and healing and has been shown to reduce the heart rate and blood pressure. Burke Harris uses an app to help her stay calm and focused throughout the day: “the more that we practice, the more we train that self-regulation into our brains and bodies.”




Andrea Brody