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Hyperarousal And Zoning Out: 2 Opposite Child Responses To Stress

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When, as children, we are subjected to trauma, stress, fear, and even terror, our nervous systems may respond in two, diametrically, opposed ways. Both these responses, however, have evolved to serve the same purposes: THOSE OF SELF – PROTECTION AND SELF – PRESERVATION.

Both, too, involve biochemical changes in the brain (in particular the regions of the AMYGDALA, the HYPOTHALAMUS, and the BRAIN STEM) and physiological changes in the body that, in turn, alter how we think, feel, and behave (or, to put it in more psychological terms, they affect us on a cognitive, emotional and behavioral level).

To what degree the child responds to stress will depend upon the severity of the stress and its duration – the more severe and long-lasting, the more extreme the child’s hyperaroused or dissociative reaction is likely to be.

The psychological researcher, Sperry, has put forward an ascending scale showing different symptoms of HYPERAROUSAL and DISSOCIATION. I represent this scale below :


  • a sense of detachment and of having ‘zoned out’
  • a sense of being numb (shut down of feelings/emotions)
  • compliance
  • lowering of the rate of heartbeat
  • distorted perception of time  (time may be perceived as ‘standing still).
  • a sense of being ‘detached from reality (the psychological term for this is ‘derealization’)
  • transient, discrete, and ephemeral periods of psychosis (Sperry uses the term ‘mini-psychoses’)
  • fainting



  • constant feelings of being under threat and continuously being on the lookout for threats (unconsciously and consciously); the psychological term for this is hypervigilance
  • anxiety
  • reactivity
  • alarm
  • speeding up of heartbeat increased blood pressure, shallower / increased rate of breathing (the psychological term for this is hyperventilation), increase in the amount of glucose released into the bloodstream and consequently delivered to the muscles (collectively, this group of physiological responses is frequently referred to as the fight/flight response).
  • fear
  • panic
  • terror


Significant stress giving rise to neurological changes that is repeated throughout childhood can, sadly, lead to long-term damage being done to the brain’s physical development.

Dissociation can be seen as an avoidance strategy (although the ‘strategy’ forms automatically and on an unconscious level), involving a withdrawal from the ‘real world’ (as this ‘real world’ generates intolerable mental pain) into an ‘inner world’ (perhaps a ‘fantasy world’ of considerable complexity in which the child makes-believe s/he is ‘all-powerful’ or in which s/he is completely protected and safe: the short – term gains for the child, won by withdrawing into such a fantastical place of psychological refuge, hardly necessitates further elucidation.

During a period of significant trauma, the child may (unconsciously) adopt one or both forms of psychological protection. In the case of the latter, when the biological and emotional demands of the hyperaroused response cease to be sustainable, s/he may switch to the dissociated form of self-protection (again, this entire process is unconsciously orchestrated).



David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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