The Toxic Stress of POverty
Financial poverty is rampant in our community. 43% of children in USD 383 qualify for free or reduced lunch, indicating their families are struggling financially. The stress of poverty has a significant impact on a child’s ability to learn as well as on their physical health. According to the Centers for Disease Control, poverty is one of the greatest causes of disparity and inequity in health. The toxic stress of poverty has been found to be associated with deleterious outcomes in learning, behavior, physical and mental health (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2007). Poverty and isolation are known to be a major factor in negative health outcomes. Thrive! places an emphasis on social health in a way no other agency can, as our focus is building support groups through intentional friendship and trained mentors. Leaders (those moving from poverty) develop goals to pursue their own financial and health outcomes and then are provided the support needed to make these goals a reality. The changes affected by our Leaders will impact their families for generations. Ultimately, our vision is to end generational poverty.
Why does poverty have such an impact on learning and health? Our brains are designed to keep us alive. Under times of stress, our midbrain takes over and disengages the cortex, the thinking and learning part of our brain. It pulls a fire alarm for our bodies by releasing adrenaline and cortisol to prepare us to flight or flee. Blood rushes to our major muscle groups, our heart rate increases, digestion stops as we direct our energy elsewhere, our immune system ramps up in case our body is damaged in a fight. As Dr. Nadine Burke Harris says, this is great if you are in the woods and facing a bear. But what happens when the bear lives in your house? What happens when you live in a world focused entirely on survival? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95ovIJ3dsNk )
An excellent video I use to describe this when making presentations, particularly to educators, is called Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KoqaUANGvpA). In this video, Jacob Ham, PhD, describes how difficult it is to process new information in survival brain. Please take a few minutes to watch. Imagine how hard it must be to take in new information with your brain in survival mode. Dr. Bruce Perry (my hero!) talks here about how stress impacts learning and behavior (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=COMwI2akgqM ).
As you may know, science is my educational background. Because of this, I’m fascinated by the science around toxic stress and trauma, as I’ve spent my career working in fields with individuals experiencing both. One topic I always found fascinating in my biology classes was aging and the role telomeres play. Have you heard of telomeres? They are caps on the end of our chromosomes (the big bundles of DNA where our genes are encoded) designed to keep our DNA from unraveling. Just like an aglet on a shoelace, telomeres keep our DNA from fraying. (I know the word aglet from watching so much Phineas and Ferb with Kaiden when he was younger! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwizJNvl62U ). The shorter your telomeres, the more aged your cell becomes. Just like you could replace the aglet on a shoelace, our body has a protein called telomerase that can add telomeres back to the ends of our cells like glue. Do you know what inhibits telomerase and keeps it from working? High levels of stress hormones.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn has done significant research on the role telomeres play in cellular aging (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wseM6wWd74 ). She wrote a book with Elissa Epsel called The Telomere Effect that details scientific research around what shortens our telomeres and what can cause them to grow. What has been shown scientifically to grow telomeres and keep our cells healthy longer? Healthy relationships top the list. The list also includes mindfulness activities, journaling, exercise, and good sleep. Thrive focuses on each of these areas to help reduce stress for our Leaders and youth and improve their physical and mental health.
Science matters! And so does ending the toxic stress of poverty.
Jayme Morris-Hardeman, Executive Director
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