When children get stuck in “fight or flight” mode, it can cause long-lasting changes in the brain and body.
Stress is an inevitable part of life — and childhood is no exception. Everyday stressors may include the first day of school, falling down and getting hurt, catching a bad cold, or having to give a class presentation.
When stress comes in manageable doses, and there are loving adults to help ease and buffer the pain, stress can help children grow and develop into stronger, more resilient human beings.
But when the stress response is prolonged, and there are no loving caretakers to turn to, children can develop toxic stress.
Childhood stress can occur anytime a child is required to adapt to something new. This could be a positive change, such as joining a new sports team or a difficult experience like a parental divorce.
The stress response, or “fight or flight,” results in a number of physiological effects, including an increased heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and overall oxygen use.
In most cases, these physiological effects are temporary with the body returning to baseline once the stressor is removed. But when children get stuck in the “fight or flight” feeling, it can lead to toxic stress.
Experts distinguish among
- Positive stress response. This is part of healthy childhood development. It’s characterized by a brief, mild increase in heart rate and hormone levels (cortisol and adrenaline). Examples might be the first day of school or getting a vaccination at the doctor’s office.
- Tolerable stress response. This is a more severe stress reaction that occurs in response to more significant, longer-lasting problems, such as a severe accident, parental divorce, or the loss of a loved one. If the body’s alert system is only activated for a limited period of time and is buffered by loving relationships with caregivers, then the brain and body can recover from what might otherwise be toxic effects.
- Toxic stress response. This can occur after severe and prolonged adversity — such as abuse, chronic neglect, parental substance use disorder or mental illness, or severe poverty — without the loving support of an adult. This type of prolonged stress exposure disrupts a child’s brain development and increases the risk for stress-related disease and long-term cognitive impairment, even well into the adult years.
When we experience love and care, our bodies release a hormone called oxytocin. This important chemical helps produce feelings of love, attachment, trust, and safety.
Stressors can be emotional, physical, or environmental, all of which can equally impact the child’s stress response.
Severe stressors in a child’s life may include the following:
- parental separation or divorce
- physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- living in a violent neighborhood
- loss of parent
- seriously ill family members
- household mental illness
- household substance misuse
- household domestic violence
- incarcerated family member
- lack of medical care
- maternal depression
- maternal substance use during pregnancy
Toxic stress, particularly when it’s triggered by multiple stressors, increases the risk of emotional, behavioral, and cognitive problems.
Some signs of toxic stress may include the following:
- easily triggered by emotions
- poor self control
- behavioral dysregulation
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- concentration and memory difficulties
- reduced cognitive flexibility
In some cases, the body adapts to being in a chronically stressful environment. Rather than constantly pumping out stress hormones, it puts on the brakes. The body produces lower levels of cortisol and becomes less reactive to daily stressors.
When a person no longer experiences the typical cortisol spike when something stressful happens,
A blunted stress response can lead to hyper-responsivity of other stress systems. In fact, it’s often associated with behavioral problems including the following:
In some cases, children who experience toxic stress are at greater risk of long-term adverse health effects that may not be noticeable until adulthood.
These health effects may include the following:
- maladaptive coping skills
- poor stress management
- unhealthy lifestyle
- mental illness (depression)
- physical disease (diabetes, heart disease, altered immunity)
- substance use disorders
The following therapies are beneficial for children and families with toxic stress:
- parent-child interaction therapy
- child-parent psychotherapy
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- trauma-focused psychotherapy
Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy are time-intensive therapies and require an instructor with years of experience. However,
- decreasing anxiety
- improving mood
- strengthening feelings of well-being
- relieving psychological distress
Other mind-body interventions that can help tap into the body’s relaxation response include the following:
Interestingly, interventions focused solely on the parents or caregivers are also quite effective. Improving parenting skills and strengthening relationships so that a child feels safe in their own home is important for avoiding toxic stress.
Parenting and family programs may include the following approaches:
- parenting classes
- home visits to improve parenting practice
- telephone support
- family-based programs
- access to social resources for parents
- peer support
- caretaker skill building classes
Community-based approaches, such as recreation centers that strengthen neighborhoods, can also be effective at buffering the toxic stress response in children. Children participating in community and outreach programs show long lasting behavioral and health benefits.
Early intervention programs, such as Head Start, may also positively affect a child’s development and give them exposure to positive experiences. These programs decrease the chances of hunger — something many children would experience if they stayed at home.
Childhood stress can occur anytime the child experiences change or adaptation. And while some stress can be helpful for growth, children who get stuck in a state of “fight or flight” may be more vulnerable to developing mental and physical illnesses.
Research reveals that when children experience an extreme and long lasting stress response — and are also lacking a comforting caregiver – it can result in an altered brain structure and weakened immune system with lifelong effects.
Having a loving caregiver, however, can significantly buffer toxic stress and protect the child from a range of illnesses.