Stress can be defined as ‘a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances’ and is, of course, an inevitable part of life. Whilst we often complain about stress due to the fact that too much of it can have damaging or even catastrophic effects upon our wellbeing, the right amount of stress is necessary and normal and this is true both in adulthood and childhood.
As children, exposure to a certain amount of stress is necessary and facilitates healthy development. The physiological effects of stress include an increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, increased production of stress hormones (e.g. cortisol) and increased rate of breathing to more effectively deliver oxygen to the muscles to prepare us for ‘fight or flight.’
As long as the stress we experience as children is not too great and, crucially, we are provided with sufficient support from our significant relationships with others (primarily in the form of emotional support from our primary caregiver) we are able to cope with it (and, in physiological terms, our bodily functions such as heart rate etc. are able to return to normal and do not incur damage to our nervous systems).
However, if the stress to which we are exposed is too overwhelming, and we are not provided with sufficient support, the cumulative effects of stress and the accompanying physiological impact on our bodies can have seriously damaging effects, including upon the physical development of the brain, potentially resulting in life-long emotional, behavioural, cognitive and social consequences.
THREE TYPES OF STRESS: POSITIVE, TOLERABLE AND TOXIC :
One way of thinking about stress, due to the very different effects it can have upon us, is to view it as fitting into one of three possible categories which are listed below :
- POSITIVE STRESS
- TOLERABLE STRESS
- TOXIC STRESS
Let’s look at each of these three categories of stress in turn :
POSITIVE STRESS AND ITS EFFECTS :
The physiological effect of positive stress is a short-lasting acceleration of pulse rate and a slight increase in levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. Experiencing positive stress is an indispensable part of normal and healthy child development and examples of situations which might give rise to such stress are a well-managed first day at school or a rudimentary dental check-up.
TOLERABLE STRESS AND ITS EFFECTS :
This type of stress induces a higher and longer-lasting level of physiological arousal and the event giving rise to this reaction may go on for some time. Examples include grief resulting from the loss of a loved one or a natural disaster. However, in relation to such stress, it is necessary that the child has good emotional support and that the increased level of physiological response is not too long-lasting/chronic if enduring damage to the brain and other bodily organs is to be avoided.
TOXIC STRESS AND ITS EFFECTS :
The child may be subjected to toxic stress when s / he experiences ongoing/frequent/chronic abuse, extreme poverty, living with a severely mentally ill parent, living in a household in which s / he is exposed to domestic violence or living with a parent / step-parent ho is an alcoholic; additionally, the child who experiences toxic stress is often deprived of adequate, emotional support from a significant adult. Such circumstances entailing such prolonged exposure to stress can cause chronic physiological arousal which, in turn, can adversely affect brain development in terms of both structure and function and harm other bodily organs with serious adverse implications for adult life (i.e. increasing the risk of several physical and mental illnesses, relationship difficulties and various other problems).
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).