We have been programmed by evolution to have physical responses to perceived dangers and threats. These evolved to prepare our ancestors for ‘fight or flight’, when, for example, they were being stalked by a predator. The bodily responses we experience when we feel endangered and threatened include:
– an increased heart rate
– an increase in blood pressure
– an increase in the quantity of stress hormones (such as cortisol) in our bloodstream
If a child experiences severe and chronic (ie. long-lasting) stress and has no emotional support (or poor and inadequate emotional support) to help him/her to cope with the stress and to buffer its effects then it can result in the actual architecture of the brain being damaged (the young brain is particularly sensitive and susceptible to the adverse effects of stress – psychologists call this sensitivity and susceptibility to architectural/physical change as the result of experience plasticity).
For example, a child may be emotionally abused by the mother over a number of years with no adequate support from the father (perhaps due to divorce from the mother, which was my own situation), older siblings (indeed, they may even join in the abuse), school, wider family or wider society.
The Three Types Of Stress Response:
1) Positive stress response:
This is a functional, normal, non-damaging type of stress, causing an only mild physiological response. An example might be a child’s first day at school. It is actually helpful to the child to experience such mild forms of stress and learn that s/he can cope with it as it helps to prepare him/her for adult life.
2) Tolerable stress response :
Here the stress experienced is more severe and/or long-lasting. The corresponding physiological response is therefore greater but still do no long-term damage as long as the child receives sufficient emotional support.
3) Toxic stress response:
Here the stress experienced is severe, long-lasting and frequent. Examples include:
– physical/emotional abuse
– maternal depression
– lack of adequate stimulation due to poverty
– living in a household where there is domestic violence
– living in a household where there is alcoholism/drug abuse
– parental mental illness
The effects of toxic stress on the young mind can be life-long. Physical effects on the brain may include:
– disruption of brain circuitry
– anatomical changes
– physiological dysregulation
– damage to the brain structure called the amygdala
– damage to the brain structure called the hippocampus
– damage to the brain structure called the prefrontal cortex
Adverse effects resulting from the above may include:
– poor mood control
– high, chronic anxiety
– severely reduced capacity to cope with stress
– severe reduction in socio-emotional skills
– excessive drinking in an attempt to reduce anxiety
– excessive smoking in an attempt to reduce anxiety
– poor academic achievement
– gang membership
– highly unstable and volatile interpersonal relationships
– unhealthy lifestyle leading to physical illnesses
– greater proneness to some medical conditions even in the absence of an unhealthy lifestyle
Toxic stress is a prevalent and very serious threat to young people’s welfare. Its adverse effects can be devastating, and, without appropriate therapy, last a lifetime.
It is therefore vital to identify individuals at risk as early as possible and to develop more effective therapeutic interventions. The earlier effective intervention occurs, the less likely the damage done to the young person will be irrevocable.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).