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.


Toxic Stress – Medical Emergencies and Life Threatening Conditions

Traumatic Stress – Medical Emergencies and Life Threatening Conditions.

Each year 300,000 stroke survivors develop PTSD.  This is just one sample of one population.  These studies are just beginning and will grow to include many populations who have other chronic or life threatening illnesses.

Elizabeth: After finishing a grueling year and a half bout of treatment for colon cancer, Elizabeth (not her name) began having some very bizarre symptoms (to her). She was emotionally erratic, explosive, anxious, and afraid to leave home.  She was easily startled, had nightmares and was paranoid – afraid everything would hurt her. She didn't sleep well and she, who was/is a very social being, was not interested in seeing her many friends. Yes, she was depressed but it was more than that. Her husband, a Vietnam vet recognized that she was showing symptoms of PTSD but this was a medical event and she was completely unprepared that something like this could happen to her.  She looked for and received very specific short term trauma resolution work – remember that traditional counseling does not impact symptoms of PTSD. Traumatic Stress remediation is a specialty and needs the attention of people trained as or by a Traumatologist. These symptoms grow as a result of a brain locked into survival and telling the story in a prescribed way ameliorates or eliminates symptoms.  And why?  You will learn that in our courses and training. How did we come to understand the relationship between Toxic Stress and medical emergencies or illness?


Mission Statement

Where the personal story can be safely explored and expressed.

Ashlar Center for Narrative Arts is an arts driven non-profit organization designed to serve the Personal Story. In our workshops people create their narratives in various media. Additionally, we have a selection of easily adapted self-care practices that are necessary to foster resilience. 

We have learned over the years that  the most powerful and underused resource in our communities are its "ordinary"  people. So, our goal is  empowering  people to create the means to tell and share their stories in a culturally relevant way -- a collaborative model one in which we are all students and learners. Learning about and respecting cultural practices is very important and is our  growing edge.  We are very interested in how different communities and  cultures meet the challenges of being human. We, community members and Ashlar associates  come together to create supportive and sustainable life affirming models based in telling and honoring the personal story. 

 Our goal is to nurture relationship, encourage learning and teaching through community involvement. We are committed to creating a climate of  well-being and providing  lay people the means to become Narrative Arts Facilitators where it would best serve them and their communities.  

 Stay tuned and continue to look through the site.