Toxic Stress




One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious... Carl Jung

Toxic stress doesn't occur just as a result of war, natural disaster, refugee migrationand other dramatic events. It shows up in people living with chronic poverty and unemployment. It shows up in juvenile detainees and in prison populations and, in general, contributes to anti-social behavior. It shows up in people who have witnessed violence or been the object of violence, domestic and street. It shows up in our Native American populations and it shows up in people with high risk-taking behaviors.  It shows up in people who are admitted to emergency rooms and ICU's and it shows up in those who care for them. It shows up in fire department and police personnel. Chronic conditions or situations can put great stress and pressure on the individual over time.


Toxic stress occurs when an individual experiences a shocking incident or a series of events(s) that creates a stronger emotional reaction than the individual brain can process  in the normal response sequence -- as a result of the stress hormones released,  changes take place in the brain that function. 


Symptoms of severe stress show up differently in children than adults. Children may appear hyperactive, unmotivated, and chronically sad or, in general, identified as having learning and behavior problems. These children are often" scanners" and wrongfully identified as ADD or ADHD.  Instead these "scanners" are asking with their behavior: "Am I safe? Am I safe? Am I safe?"  Regardless of the adverse events or conditions that produced the scanning behavior, scanning is an important skill these kids have and will remain with them after the symptoms of toxic stress are resolved.  These children may appear normal after what is categorized as a traumatizing event but their vital signs when taken over time may tell a different story.  Bruce Perry MD director of the Child Traumatology Academy found in the Branch Dividian children. These children had been through experiences akin to war -- after a few days of quiet, they settled down and were playing normally again but when vital signs were taken, there was nothing normal about them. These children were experiencing symptoms that often remain after adverse experiences. 

Thanks to the ACE study done nearly twenty years ago ( 17,000 people participated) by doctors Robert Anda and Vincent Filetti, those of us who were trained in traumatology have learned that adverse childhood experiences are ubiquitous in our communities and thus, those doctors have shifted the focus to Public Health and community responsibility. Ashlar programs have been developed to fill this need. We train lay people to serve their communities as educators and Narrative Arts Facilitators -- many people are better served by their own community members than those outside.  Few few look to professionals.

Neuroscience teaches that toxic stress symptoms can be transmitted generationally which increases the urgency to address adverse experiences quickly as possible and provide communities with the information and skills to take care of themselves and each other. All too often professional people from agencies and teaching institutions come into areas where there is a h sitory of adverse community experience.. They stay awhile and then they leave with the community no better prepared to deal with adversity than before and conditions all too often revert because the community hasn't "owned," been taught or adapted what has helped them to address adverse experience of their specific community. Additionally, in some communities those seeking "professional help" are stigmatized.

And it is not too far-fetched to say that un-addressed toxic stress contributes to many of ou r social ills from addiction to the lack of peace in communities. People tend to do to others what has happened to them -- so that destructive behavior toward self or others contributes to problems in families and communities. At the very least we know that violence begets violence.  

In the last decade, our understanding of toxic stress has undergone tremendous change as neuroscience shows us what happens to the brain when exposed to adverse events or conditions. We teach neuroscience as it relates to the individual, family and community. Thus, In short,  the focus of our training is grass roots. After completing our program, trainees will be equipped with information and techniques to begin Shoe String Story groups. Shoe String Stories?  They begin with beads, small trinkets, feathers and just about anything you can  attach to a shoe string. We provide the bag with the beads, the feathers, the charms and the shoe string which can also be knotted.  Each major life event goes on as a knot, a charm, a bead, a feather and when the Shoe String is complete, each event represented by the bead is told.   

Another of the ways in which Ashlar addresses the personal story is through our Narrative Arts and Expressive Writing -- the latter's impact has been the focus of studies by James Pennebaker, PhD who was a first among researchers to demonstrate the efficacy of writing about mental and physical health issues. He found that writing is often more effective than other methods. And. We are not newcomers to this area as our writing groups have been going on for thirty thirty years with a solid history of refinement and success.   

Our desire is to empower individuals and communities by creating self-generated, community based services out of shared knowledge and experience.


Who We Are


We make art in order not to die from the truth.

Ashlar Center for Narrative Arts is a U.S. 501c3 non-profit organization designed to serve the personal story and address the trauma it may contain. Our work is educational and skills driven -- grounded in thirty years of community based experience.

We use photos, interviews, and teach guided writing (Writing Through the Body).  For those people for whom revealing identity is unsafe or who are non-literate, they are offered an opportunity to  build a multi-media piece to contain and share the story in an abstract or symbolic form. Our goal is Witnessing and facilitating the creation of a coherent narrative for our students as they move with us toward well-being and resilience. 

Following from our initial work with Story, we collaborate with students to create a culturally relevant Self-Care program facilitated by them.