Stress. Perhaps even reading the word gets your heart racing a little. Everybody knows that too much stress can be harmful and can negatively affect the body and health in many ways. Stress is associated with a long list of health problems, including cardiovascular, immune and metabolic diseases. However, many do not realize that the brain is the primary organ controlling the response to stress.
We are researchers who study human brain and cognitive development, and the effects of different kinds of experiences on this development. Research from our lab and others has shown that while to some degree stress affects us all, exposure to prolonged levels of stress is particularly dangerous for the developing brain.
When we encounter a stressful situation, the body needs to rapidly mobilize as much energy as possible. This energy comes from glucose in the bloodstream. Heart rate increases, breathing quickens and blood pressure rises to quickly deliver glucose to cells that need it. Stress hormones are secreted that reach the brain and allow for improved alertness, sensory perception, and memory formation and retrieval. Therefore, you might not be surprised to learn that the areas of the brain that are the most sensitive to these stress hormones are areas important for learning, memory, decision-making and emotional processing.
Of course, some stress is good. The stress response evolved to save our lives in dangerous situations, and situations that cause moderate levels of stress will help us adapt to changes in our environment. For example, the moderate stress response a child experiences on the first day of school is normal and essential to development.
However, problems arise when our stress response remains active for long periods of time. This can be the result of spending a prolonged period of time in a stressful environment, or from poor stress management. In the words of Robert Sapolsky, a noted researcher who studies the effects of stress on the brain: “Most of us do not have a problem in appropriately turning on the stress response. Most of us have a bigger problem in appropriately turning it off.” In adults, prolonged activation of this stress response leads the body to shut down long-term maintenance systems, which in turn leads to the multitude of health problems associated with stress. The stress response that can save your life when briefly engaged will make you sick if it stays on for too long.
Prolonged activation of the stress response in children can have damaging effects on the development of the brain. The stress hormones that flood the brain during prolonged stressful periods can affect the development of brain cells and connections between them, the size of certain brain areas and, ultimately, development of healthy brain architecture. Because these brain areas are important for learning, memory, and emotional processing, prolonged exposure to stress can lead to problems with thinking, memory, and emotional processing as well as increased risk for later health problems.
Chronic stress is literally toxic to the developing brain. Prolonged stressful situations that can lead to these effects include physical neglect (e.g., being wet, hungry, cold) or emotional abuse and neglect, substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and family economic hardship. These situations are often, but not always, associated with poverty and inequality. One of the primary factors associated with stress in children, as well as in adults, is a lack of predictability and sense of control.
However, there is good news. Research has identified “buffers” that can help protect developing brains against these toxic effects. Most important is nurturance: A relationship with a caring, supporting adult caregiver can greatly reduce the effects of stress on the developing brain.
Other research, including some done in our lab, is also finding that training programs can help by teaching children strategies for managing stress by learning to regulate their emotions and by giving parents evidence-based strategies for reducing and managing stress, both in their relationships with their children and in their households. For example, some strategies seek to increase predictability via the use of routines and schedules. Others seek to increase the child’s sense of control by giving the child frequent opportunities to make choices and solve problems.
To learn more about the brain, brain development and the effects of stress on the brain, see our not-for-profit DVD entitled Changing Brains that can be viewed for free or purchased at low cost.
Helen Neville, Ph.D., directs the UO Brain Development Lab, where the coauthors of this column conduct research. Parenting Now! is a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening families through parent support and education. Explore our site; visit us on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram; or call 541-484-5316. Family Info Line is also available; call 211, extension 5, or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org/