We Live Here Rerun: Caring about health in the face of toxic stress | St. Louis Public Radio

We Live Here Rerun: Caring about health in the face of toxic stress

Mar 21, 2016

In this rerun of We Live Here, we examine the concept of toxic stress and learn how managing patients who experience it is challenging for doctors and for the patients themselves.

First a definition.

Toxic Stress: This refers to the impact of bad experiences that happen over and over again on a person's brain architecture and chemistry. Many researchers study the impact toxic stress can have on a child's development. But it can also apply to an adult.

For example, if a single dad needs to go to municipal court to pay a fine, but he doesn't have the money to pay it, that can be stressful. But let's add to that. Not only can he not afford the fine, but he cannot afford child care and he's not allowed to bring his child with him to court. That's even more stress. Then, on top of that, he is supposed to be at his job at the car wash, which pays hourly, but going to court will make him late to work. 

That's toxic stress.

But it also applies to how safe someone feels in their own home or how secure they feel in their job or if they've been exposed repeatedly to violence. 

Someone suffering from toxic stress experiences health and health care much differently than someone who is secure in his or her life.

And for physicians like Dr. Heidi Miller, treating these patients isn't something doctors learn about in medical school. 

"I was taught what normal physiology was and what pathology was. Seven years of learning how to identify a nail that I could then hammer," Miller said. "Over 12 years of maturing as a physician, I've realized that human suffering does not come down to one medical problem with a pill that solves it. The vast majority of my patients are in some capacity suffering from stress in their lives now or in their past."

Our podcast follows Dr. Miller as well as people who experience toxic stress as they cope with the things that create it.