Toxic Stress

Stress is an inevitable part of life. People experience stress early, even before they are born. A certain amount of stress is normal and necessary for survival.  Positive stress helps children develop the skills they need to cope with, and adapt to, new and potentially threatening situations throughout life.

However, the beneficial aspects of stress shrink when the stress is severe enough that a child cannot cope because the stressor lasts for too long or is too intense.  When this happens, it can lead to both short- and long-term negative health effects. This type of stress is called toxic stress and it includes social stressors such as poverty, racism, abuse, misogyny and others.

Toxic stress can also lead to low birth weight - or babies who are born before 37 weeks. Mothers from communities of color and low-income families are disproportionately affected by toxic stress, compared to their white counterparts.

Women experiencing racism have three times the adverse birth outcomes as women who don't experience racism.  In multiple studies, women of color living in lower income areas experiencing racism, were at a higher risk of delivering a low birthweight baby than their white counterparts living in better neighborhoods.

The disparities in race and socio-economic status mean that communities of color are bearing greater inequities in health throughout the life course, increasing the many burdens already faced.


Collins, J. W., David, R. J., Handler, A., Wall, S., & Andes, S. (2004). Very Low Birthweight in African American Infants: The Role of Maternal Exposure to Interpersonal Racial Discrimination. American Journal of Public Health,94(12), 2132-2138.

Middlebrook, J., and Audage, N. (2008). “The Effects of Childhood Stress on Health Across the Lifespan.” PsycEXTRA Dataset,

Nuru-Jeter, A., Dominguez, T.P., Hammond, W.P. et al. (2009). “It’s the skin you’re in”: African American Women talk about their experiences of racism. An exploratory study to develop measures of racism and birth outcome. Maternal and Child Health Journal 13: 29