Not all stress is bad. Some stress activates areas of our brain that helps us to survive dangerous situations. Some children who live in stressful circumstances can survive and develop into typical adults. Other children live through such extreme stressful circumstances that they never have a chance to recover from the stress. The result of this can be traumatic for their developing brain.
According to T. Singer there are good stresses and bad stresses. We become stressed when our brain perceives a stimulus and our nervous system starts to react. Adrenal glands release the first stress hormone, epinephrine or adrenaline. This hormone dilates the bronchial tubes in the lungs, making the heart race and breathing more difficult. Blood flows quickly to the brain and the muscles. This activates the fight or flight reflex. The next stress hormone, cortisol, is then triggered. When we know that the event will end, such as riding a roller coaster or watching a scary movie, cortisol can be good. It gives us energy for the duration of the stressful event. When the stress doesn’t end, and the cortisol continues to be produced, it can be dangerous.
According to D. Alban there are two main types of stress, chronic and acute. Acute stress is the reaction to a threat. Once the threat is gone, the effects of the stress should go away. When we experience acute stress adrenaline kicks in and helps us to think faster. In some events this can save our lives. It is when the other stress hormone, cortisol, kicks in that things can become dangerous for the developing brain and body. Excessive cortisol can damage brain development and actually kill brain cells. Chronic stress can cause memory problems, and as stress builds up in the amygdala it can create a constant fear and anxiety. Chronic stress can also disrupt the production of new brain cells. This article says that cortisol can stop the formation of new neurons in the part of the brain that stores memories- the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that controls learning, memory and emotional regulation.
B.C. Nixon at the Urban Child Institute further explains the effect of stress on the brain. He writes that the brain is the primary stress organ: It is responsible for activating, monitoring and shutting down the body’s reactions to stress. Infants’ developing brains are vulnerable and babies are affected by stress even in the womb. Cortisol levels of the mother can affect the developing fetus. A mother’s level of stress is directly related to the development of her baby. Positive stress levels are safe, but toxic stress can cause impaired mental, behavioral and motor development. According to the website, all children will experience a certain amount of stress as they learn to cope with anger or frustration or overcome challenges. This type of stress is usually safe, especially if the child has a supportive caregiver. The article goes on to explain that it is important to distinguish tolerable stress from toxic stress. Toxic stress can be a result of neglect, emotional and physical abuse, and excessive harsh parenting. “Research tells us stress in utero and in the first months and years of life has lasting consequences on a developing child.” High levels of early stress have been shown to impede behavior and emotional development.
According to research from Harvard University there are three types of responses to stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. Positive response to stress is normal and healthy to development. A positive stress response may happen when a child is left with a new babysitter for the first time. Tolerable stress can last longer. This may be caused by the death of a loved one or something scary. If this happens, and there is an adult who can help the child, the brain will recover and may not be damaged. The third type of stress response is when a child has frequent and prolonged trauma such as abuse or neglect or exposure to violence without a caring adult to support them. This kind of stress can disrupt the development of the brain and may increase the risk of cognitive impairment. Stress that is excessive or lasts a long time can even delay the developing body. This same research says that the more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the chances of developmental delays.
The article Stress and Early Brain Development explains the effect of toxic stress on the developing brain. The amygdala is a structure in the brain that controls emotional response. It activates behavior such as fight or flight. When toxic stress damages the amygdala children may not have normal reactions to normal stress. When they are experiencing low levels of stress or situations aren’t necessarily dangerous their fight or flight reflex may be triggered. This explains why children with emotional/behavioral deficits often seem to overreact to things that happen in the classroom.
According to J. Donovan stress becomes trauma when it lasts a long time, is pervasive, and intense. A stressful situation becomes a traumatic experience when our nervous system is overwhelmed and we cannot manage the stressor. The National Child Traumatic Stress Institute defines a traumatic event as a “frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity. Witnessing a traumatic event that threatens life or physical security of a loved one can also be traumatic.” A traumatic event can cause toxic stress and toxic stress can lead to a traumatized individual. Regardless of whether it is defined as toxic stress or trauma the effects on the brain are similar. The amygdala, the hippocampus, and the ventromedial frontal cortex are all affected. According to P. Perry when one experiences trauma the hippocampus can be affected, damaging the ability to remember things. When this happens the victim of trauma often can’t tell the difference between past memory and the present time. They are on high alert, and they are reactive to small triggers. The amygdala also increases in size. When this happens the person often can’t control their emotional reactions. They become angry or sad over seemingly small things, and they don’t understand why. They also have elevated stress hormones so they struggle controlling these emotions.
Now that we know the effects of stress and trauma on the brain we need to look at the strategies to reduce or prevent the damage. T. Singer stated that we can “stress proof our brain, raising our overall stress threshold.” When the stressors are gone the damage can be reversed. The Urban Child Institute points out that “sensitive and responsive” parenting can protect children from long-term consequences of toxic stress. In order to manage these stresses parents and caregivers must know how to respond in a supportive way.
Research from Harvard University tells us that learning how to cope with stress is an important part of child development. When threatened the heart rate increases and stress hormones rise. When a child’s stress hormones are activated and they have a supportive adult to help them process the stress the effects of the stress are not damaging. Instead they develop healthy stress response systems. If the stress is extreme and long lasting, and they do not have an adult to buffer it, then the developing brain may be harmed. Supportive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or even reverse the damage of toxic stress.
The article Stress and Early Brain Development confirms that research has shown that children who have access to supportive, attentive caregivers can protect the developing brain from harmful effects. Children who have secure relationships learn that they can communicate their feelings and ask for help. This safety can prevent damage do the amygdala.
According to Washington Post article by R. Pomerance Berl, parents and teachers need to learn how to do things differently. Adults cannot make a difference with children if they don’t practice self-calming and coping strategies themselves. Some children react when someone talks to them in a way they interpret as harsh. With chronic exposure to stress the fight or flight part of the brain takes over more often. Many caregivers know what to do, but because of their own stress they do the wrong thing. An example is caregivers yelling when they shouldn’t. She emphasized that teachers and parents need to learn how to be mindful, to reset and free themselves from distractions that may “derail behavior” She suggests counting breaths or focusing on one of the 5 senses in order to return to the present moment. This may help to interrupt the stress cycle. Using these strategies may help caregivers to not react negatively or in a punitive manner.
M. Duval sums it up when she says that our bodies don’t know the difference between stress to protect us and other stress. The stress response is there to help us survive the next 1-3 minutes. It takes resources from non-essential functions of our body. Children and adults who have undergone acute stress or trauma would benefit from being taught how to recognize when they inappropriately activate their stress response and to develop skills to be able to turn it off. They need to become aware of when they are holding the stress so that they can release it. Damage will continue to be done to their physical and mental development unless they become aware that it is happening.
Chronic stress that happens over prolonged periods of time can be damaging to the developing child. In this course we have learned about the physical, cognitive, and social development of children from birth through their teenage years. Stress or trauma that happens during any stage of development can impede all three areas. Children who undergo stress or trauma without the help of a supportive adult may not grow physically, may suffer cognitive impairment, and may have abnormal reactions when confronted with typical social interactions. If the stress is ongoing the developmental delays may be greater. It is important that the child has an adult that can teach strategies to help the student work through the stress or trauma. Unfortunately, the parent in the child’s life may also be undergoing stress and be unable to help the child. In these cases, it is often left to educators to step in to provide a caring, supportive environment in order to reduce the damage on the brain.
Photo taken from Creative Homes Website article, What is Toxic Stress and How Does it Effect Children.
Alban, D. (2018, April 04). 12 Effects of Chronic Stress on Your Brain. Retrieved April 08, 2018, from https://bebrainfit.com/effects-chronic-stress-brain/
Bergland, C. (2014, February 12). Chronic Stress Can Damage Brain Structure and Connectivity. Psychology Today.
Donovan, J. (February 2018) When Does Stress Become Trauma. Whole Body Healing.
DuVal, M. MA (2018) Mindfulness for Health and Wellness PowerPoint Slides Retrieved from UNM Center for Development ; Disability Autism Imagine Conference.
Gunnar, M. R., PhD, Hostinar, C. E., BS, ; Herrera, A., MA. (June 2009). Stress and Early Brain Development. Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Development.
Pomerance Berl, R (2015) Schools are Now Teaching Kids (and their Parents) How to Deal with Stress The Washington Post
Nixon, B. C. (2012, February 15). Stress Has Lasting Effect on Child’s Development. Urban Child Institute.
Perry, P. (2015) Been Traumatized? Here’s How PTSD Rewires the Brain. Big Think. Smarter Faster. http://bigthink.com/philip-perry/been-traumatized-here-is-how-ptsd-rewires-the-brain
Singer, T. (2012, June 9). The Perfect Amount of Stress. Psychology Today.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2018) About Child Trauma. online} Available at: https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/about-child-trauma Accessed 15 Apr.2018
Toxic Stress. (n.d.). Retrieved March 31, 2018, from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/
What Is Toxic Stress and How Does It Affect Children? (2016, November 12). Retrieved April 14, 2018, from http://creativehomes.tdlp.co.uk/what-is-toxic-stress-and-how-does-it-affect-children/