Toxic Childhood Stress And Stress Inoculation

Many children who grow up in dysfunctional family homes find themselves living in a state of hypervigilance, never knowing how their parents are going to respond to them at any given time (for example, this is often the case in homes where one or both parents are alcoholics or in homes where the parents are subject to dramatic mood swings and outbursts of explosive rage (perhaps due to substance abuse or to mental illness). In other words, such children live in environments in which they are frequently exposed to severely stressful events but are unable to predict when such events will occur.

A study conducted by J.M Weiss (1971) was conducted to investigate the somatic (i.e. bodily) effects of unpredictable stressors on rats.

How was the study carried out?

In the study, the rats were split into two groups :

  • GROUP ONE: The rats in this group were given UNPREDICTABLE electric shocks (the stressor)
  • GROUP TWO: The rats in this group were also given electric shocks (each shock that the rats in this group received were of exactly the same intensity and duration as the shocks that the rats in group one received – HOWEVER, the shocks given to the rats in this group were PREDICTABLE (a warning signal was given immediately prior to the application of each shock).

So, to summarize :



Were The Somatic (Bodily) Effects On The Rats Different According To Which Group They Were In?

Yes. The rats in Group One (who were subjected to UNPREDICTABLE STRESSORS) suffered greater adverse somatic stress reactions than the rats in Group Two (who were subjected to PREDICTABLE STRESSORS).

Somatic stress reactions shown by the rats included :

  • changes in body weight
  • stomach ulceration
  • effects upon plasma corticosterone concentration

Similarly, living in an environment in which one is exposed to unpredictable stress can seriously, and negatively impact a young person’s psychological development. Indeed, studies show that parents who treat their children in harsh and unpredictable ways, especially when the child is in an emotionally distressed state, increase these children’s risk of becoming emotionally deregulated and unable to cope effectively with stress.

Such children may also be placed at risk of developing various physical problems such as obesity.




One method to help us overcome our vulnerability to the harmful effects of stress was developed by psychologist Meicenbaum (1985); the method is a form of psychotherapy known as stress inoculation training (SIT).

Stress Inoculation Training: 

This therapy is intended to help the individual prepare in advance for potentially stressful situations, increasing his/her resistance to stress, together with his/her ability to manage it.


Stress inoculation therapy (SIT) involves the patient undertaking three specific stages. These are as follows:

1) Conceptualization

2) Skills Acquisition and Rehearsal

3) Application and Follow Through

Let’s look at each of these in turn:


The patient is encouraged to view the stressor as a challenge to be overcome (as opposed to an insurmountable problem).

S/he is taught to differentiate between what can and what can’t be changed about this challenging situation what can, then to accept what can’t be changed and to focus on what can be changed (such as his/her response to it).

S/he is also encouraged to become aware that anticipating not being able to cope with the challenging situation can frequently become a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Once the patient has reconceptualized the potential stressor, s/he is taught skills intended to enable him/her to deal with it in the most effective manner possible. Skills s/he is taught will vary according to individual needs but may include:

– relaxation techniques

– emotional regulation (i.e. control)

– cognitive restructuring/cognitive reappraisal (eg viewing the situation, and the self, in a more positive way)

– social skills 

– communication skills

The therapist also helps the patient rehearse for the upcoming potentially stressful situation(eg through visualization exercises and role play)


This simply involves putting the above into practice. Sometimes the therapist may utilize a method known as systematic desensitization which involves the patient first being exposed to only a mildly challenging situation, then gradually being exposed to increasingly challenging situations until the patient has mastered his/her fear.


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