Stress! We’ve all felt it, and none of us like it. Numerous experiences in life can trigger a stressful response. The primary culprits are:
- Conflict (arguing and fighting, or conflict between one’s own psyche and the constraints of the world).
- Fear (of the unknown, of certain events).
- Change (We all hate it. Anything that disrupts our normal routine elevates stress.)
- Loss of control (which results in fear and helplessness).
- Social pressure (a primary activator of stress).
- Insecurity (about life, about an event; emotional or physical).
As hard as it may be to believe, not all stress is bad. It serves a role in our physiology, and is designed to focus our attention on a particular threat so that we can react quickly. In isolated doses, stress can actually help an organism thrive and build resiliency. Children need a certain amount of stress to grow into healthy adults. Much in the same way that the immune system grows stronger by fighting off germs, children grow more resilient by experiencing stress and overcoming it. A person who is shielded from stressful situations in their childhood grows up to be a rather incompetent adult, ill-prepared for the ups and downs of life.
On the other hand, too much stress isn’t good for anyone, and “too much” can come in several different forms. There are certain elements that make stress especially bad:
- Chronic stress – Stress becomes harmful to a child if it occurs too frequently. The elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) on the brain can create cognitive deficits and other long-term emotional problems.
- Acute stress – Certain events, such as a severe car accident or a violent rape, can create such a spike in cortisol that it overwhelms a child’s ability to cope. Such acute events can lead to PTSD.
- Social stress – We have never known social stress to be a good thing, under any circumstance. Not only does it create a spike in cortisol (the primary stress hormone) that is higher and stays on the brain for longer than any other type of stress, but it can linger and endure for months, years, or even a lifetime. Social stress is easily recalled and can be just as potent when recalling the memory of it as it was when it originally occurred. It’s meant as a strong warning signal that keeps us in line with the group and is meant to prevent banishment (something that in our evolutionary past meant certain death). But in modern day society, it serves little purpose other than to create severe hurt.
- Uncomforted stress – No stress is beneficial unless it gets resolved, because unless the child learns to deal with it and grow from it, nothing is being accomplished.
Good Stress versus Toxic Stress
You want children to experience the good kind of stress. The kind that challenges them in the moment but is then overcome, either because the stressors end or because stressful situations are properly comforted, allowing a child to move on. When stress lingers, it becomes toxic.
Toxic stress causes all types of problems, both physical and psychological. As a Harvard University brief from the Center on the Developing Child states: “When we are threatened, our bodies activate a variety of physiological responses, including increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones such as cortisol. When a young child is protected by supportive relationships with adults, he learns to cope with everyday challenges and his stress response system returns to baseline. Scientists call this positive stress. Tolerable stress occurs when more serious difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury, are buffered by caring adults who help the child adapt, which mitigates the potentially damaging effects of abnormal levels of stress hormones. When strong, frequent, or prolonged adverse experiences such as extreme poverty or repeated abuse are experienced without adult support, stress becomes toxic, as excessive cortisol disrupts developing brain circuits.”
Cortisol, the stress hormone, can lead to learning disabilities or other cognitive impairments because it suppresses the growth of brain cells in critical regions of the brain. Chronically stressed children have been shown to have significantly reduced neural activity in certain areas compared to that of their healthy peers, and they have also been found to have some brain regions that are significantly underdeveloped with a lower brain weight or volume of gray matter. Toxic stress also contributes to anxiety disorders and emotional problems such as depression. Perhaps most worrisome, a child’s brain is organized according to their environment. So when a child experiences chronic stress throughout their childhood, the brain organizes itself accordingly; creating more stress receptor cells and becoming hypersensitive towards perceived threats. In other words, too much stress early on wires a child’s brain so that they experience much more stress throughout the rest of their life.