Not all stress is bad. Some stress helps us to survive unsafe experiences. Some children who experience a lot of stress develop into typical, functioning adults. Other children live through such extreme, long lasting stressful situations that they never have a chance to recover. The result of this can be grim for their developing brain.
According to T. Singer there are good stresses and bad stresses. We become stressed when our brain is activated. Our brain reacts causing a series of hormones to be released. Epinephrine or adrenaline is produced by the adrenal gland. This makes our heart beat faster and it is difficult to breathe. Blood flows to the brain and the muscles. This causes a reflex that tells our body to fight or flee. The next stress hormone, cortisol, then starts. When we know that the event will end, such as riding a roller coaster, cortisol can be good. It gives us energy to help us last through the stress. When the stress doesn’t end, and the cortisol continues to be produced, it can be dangerous.
According to D. Alban there are two main types of stress, chronic and acute. Acute stress how our body and brain react to the stress. When the threat leaves us, our bodily reactions should go away. Acute stress makes adrenaline be produced. This can help us to think faster. An example is when we are driving on the freeway and a car cuts in front of us. In this circumstance stress causes us to react quickly. This can save our lives. When the other stress hormone, cortisol, kicks in things can become unhealthy for the brain and body. Too much cortisol can kill brain cells. Chronic stress can cause memory problems, and as stress builds up in the amygdala it can create anxiety that never stops and can cause a constant fear. Chronic stress can also disturb the growth of new brain cells. This article says that cortisol can actually stop new neurons from forming in our hippocampus which is the part of the brain that stores memories, controls learning, and helps us to regulate our emotions.
B.C. Nixon at the Urban Child Institute further explains the effect of stress on the brain. He writes that the brain is a stress organ. It activates, monitors, and is responsible for stopping our body’s reactions to stress. Infants’ developing brains are vulnerable and babies are affected by stress even before they are born. Levels of cortisol in the mother can affect the fetus. A mother’s level of stress is directly related to the development of her baby. Positive stress levels are safe, but toxic stress can cause mental difficulties, and delayed behavioral and motor skills., According to the website, all children will experience some stress as they learn to deal with anger, frustration, or challenges. This type of stress is usually safe, especially if the child has a supportive caregiver. The article goes on to explain that it is important to know the difference between tolerable stress from toxic stress. Toxic stress can be caused by neglect, emotional and physical abuse, and excessive harsh parenting. “Research tells us stress in utero and in the first months and years of life has lasting consequences on a developing child.” High levels of stress early in life have been shown to cause behavior problems and problems with emotional development.
According to research from Harvard University there are three types of responses to stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. Positive response to stress is normal and healthy to development. A positive stress response may happen when a child is left with a new babysitter for the first time. Tolerable stress can last longer. This may be caused by a death in the family or something scary. If this happens, and there is an adult who can help the child, the brain may recover. The third type of stress response is when a child has a lot of trauma such as abuse or neglect or exposure to violence. If there is not a caring adult, this stress can result in the brain not developing as it is supposed to. It can increase the chances of cognitive impairment. Stress that is excessive or lasts a long time can even delay the developing body. This same research says that the more negative experiences in childhood, the greater the chances of developmental delays.
The article Stress and Early Brain Development explains the effect of toxic stress on the developing brain. The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls emotional response. It activates behavior such as fight or flight. When toxic stress damages the amygdala children may not have normal reactions to normal stress. When they are experiencing low levels of stress or situations that aren’t necessarily dangerous their fight or flight reflex may be triggered. This explains why children with emotional/behavioral deficits often seem to overreact to things that happen in the classroom.
According to J. Donovan stress becomes trauma when it is “inescapable and intense.” A stressful situation becomes a traumatic experience when our nervous system is overwhelmed and we cannot manage what is stressing us. The National Child Traumatic Stress Institute defines a traumatic event as a “frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity. Witnessing a traumatic event can also be traumatic.” A traumatic event can cause toxic stress and toxic stress can lead to a traumatized person. Regardless of whether it is defined as toxic stress or trauma the effects on the brain are similar. The amygdala, the hippocampus, and the frontal cortex are all affected. According to P. Perry when one experiences trauma the hippocampus can damaged making it hard to remember things. When this happens, the person who experienced a trauma may not be able to tell the difference between the past and the present. They are always reacting or overreacting, even to things that would appear small to those who have not had similar experiences. The amygdala also gets bigger. When this happens the person often can’t control their emotional reactions. They become angry or sad over what others may think are small things, and they don’t understand why. They also have more stress hormones than is typical so they struggle controlling these emotions.
Once I learned of the effects of stress and trauma on the brain I wanted to look for strategies to help reduce or prevent the damage. T. Singer stated that we can “stress proof our brain, raising our overall stress threshold.” When the stressors are gone the damage can sometimes be reversed. The Urban Child Institute points out that “sensitive and responsive” parenting can protect children from the long-term ramification of toxic stress. In order to manage these stresses parents and caregivers must know how to respond in a supportive way.
Research from Harvard University tells us that learning how to cope with stress is an important part of child development. When threatened the heart rate increases and stress hormones rise. When a child’s stress hormones are activated and they have a supportive adult to help them then the effects of the stress are not as damaging. Instead they develop healthy stress response systems. If the stress is high, lasts a long time, and they do not have an adult to help, then the developing brain may be harmed. Supportive relationships with caring adults from as young an age as possible can prevent or even turn around the damage that toxic stress may cause.
The article Stress and Early Brain Development confirms that research has shown that children who have caring adults in their lives may have a better chance of their brain being protected from bad things happening to it. Children who have positive relationships learn that they can talk to someone about their feelings and they learn to ask for help. This safety can prevent damage do the amygdala.
According to Washington Post article by R. Pomerance Berl, parents and teachers need to learn how to do things differently. Adults cannot make a difference with children if they don’t practice self-calming strategies themselves. Some children react when someone talks to them in a way they think as mean. When they have a lot of stress in their lives, the “fight or flight” part of the brain takes over more often. Many caregivers know what to do, but because of their own stress they do the wrong thing. An example is caregivers yelling when they shouldn’t or sending the child to a time-out area when the child needs to be around people. She emphasized that teachers and parents need to learn how to be mindful, to reset and get rid of the distractions that may “derail behavior” She says to count breaths or focus on one of the five senses in order to return to the present moment. This may help to interrupt the stress cycle. Using these strategies may help caregivers to not react negatively or to punish too much.
M. Duval sums it up when she says that our bodies don’t know the difference between stress to protect us and other stress. The stress response is there to help us survive the next one to three minutes. We use resources from our body that are not essential to help us survive the stress. Children and adults who have undergone acute stress or trauma would benefit from being taught how to recognize when they inappropriately activate their stress response and to develop skills to be able to turn it off. They need to become aware of when they are holding the stress so that they can release it. Damage will continue to be done to their physical and mental development unless they become aware that it is happening and develop the tools to stop it.
Chronic stress that happens over prolonged periods of time can be bad for the developing child. In this course we have learned about the physical, cognitive, and social development of children from birth through their teenage years. Stress or trauma that happens during any stage of development can impede all three areas. Children who undergo stress or trauma without the help of a supportive adult may not grow physically, may suffer cognitive impairment, and may have abnormal reactions when confronted with typical social interactions. If the stress is ongoing the developmental delays may be greater. It is important that the child has an adult that can teach strategies to help the student work through the stress or trauma. Unfortunately, the parent in the child’s life may also be undergoing stress and be unable to help the child. In these cases, it is often left to educators to step in to provide a caring, supportive environment in order to reduce the damage on the brain.