Stress and The Brain

Too Much, Too Little, and the Resilience Sweet Spot

As a culture, we are obsessed with stress and the brain –“Stress Free in 40 Days!”– “Go On Vacation and Leave Stress Behind!” say the advertisements. You can buy stress busters, stress exterminators, and stress eradicators.

Yet one out of five children report worrying “a great deal” or “a lot.” Millenials (young adults ages 18-33) are more likely than any other age group to be told they have an anxiety disorder or depression.

In the words of the American Psychological Association, “The kids aren’t all right.”

It isn’t just kids who are worried. As parents, anxiety comes with the job description. We worry about all kinds of things – including our kids’ worries. (The irony isn’t lost on me here). We ask questions: How much scheduling is too much? What impact is my job loss having on my kids? How will I provide for my kids? How will I equip my child to navigate such a complicated world? Is my stress stressing my child out?!

Stress is by definition emotional. And there isn’t a clear roadmap to navigate when stress busters don’t do the job.

Teenager sitting alone at a table looking stressed

Stress and the Brain

Stress is a part of life. New experiences, transitions, real and perceived danger, deadlines, unknowns, and pressure can all evoke feelings of anxiety. Stress and emotional regulation is one of the brain’s primary “executive functions,” centered in the prefrontal cortex. As our kids’ grow up, they get better at managing their emotions and coping with anxiety.

For example, it isn’t uncommon to see my two year old rolling around on the floor crying when he gets hungry. By the time he is 15, we hope he has developed better coping mechanisms. You can thank his maturing cortex for sparing us the meltdown (or at least the writhing on the floor part of it).

But because their executive functions are “under construction,” children and teens alike need extra practice calming themselves, considering alternative actions, and adapting to new and sometimes overwhelming situations.

When it comes to practice though, the correct dosage is critical. Too much stress shuts down the executive center and disrupts the brains developing architecture. Too little stress robs the brain of practice in meeting life’s challenges.

Too much stress

The brain does all kinds of great stuff but its primary job is to keep us alive. If I feel truly threatened, my entire brain responds by shutting down from the “top down.” Executive functions and my thinking brain are a luxury in times of great danger. The stress response hijacks the cortex in order to react quickly and efficiently. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol rush into my bloodstream to coordinate a freeze, fight or flight response.

The good news is that this stress response is why we humans are still around. The bad news is that sustained stress response wreaks havoc on both the body and the brain.

Toxic stress is the type that results from prolonged, frequent, and intense experiences of adversity without any adult support. The same hormones that improve our response in the short term damage memory, undermine learning, and depress the immune system in the long term.

Basic feelings of safety and security enable young people to harness the power of their cortex for new learning and emotional regulation. This is why addressing poverty and investing in efforts to ensure that children and youth have adequate food, housing, and safety from violence, trauma and bullying are so critical. This is why dismantling racism, white supremacy, homophobia, Islamophobia and other toxic forces are so urgent. Finally, this is also why ensuring that children and youth have caring relationships that buffer them from toxic stress at home and at school is so important.

The science of stress and the brain begs us to ask big and pressing questions about systems that fail to care for, protect, and empower children and youth in this country.

Too little stress

As Dr. Bruce Perry shares in his book Born for Love, “Just as you wouldn’t build muscle by resting all week and then trying to lift a hundred pounds just one time every Friday morning, you can’t build a healthy stress response system by complete protection from stress or occasional exposure to an overwhelming dose.”

Not all stress is bad. Consider, for example, the stress that a child or teen might experience on the first day of school or in a difficult conversation with a friend. Learning how to handle appropriate stress is a healthy and normal part of development.

Our urge to protect children from harm is strong. Protection, however, can be overdone. Children and teens who haven’t had practice handling stress or taking responsibility for their actions, even when it is difficult, can become more anxious and risk averse. By overprotecting them, we inadvertently make them more vulnerable.

When our kids learn to deal with small challenges, they are better prepared to deal with bigger ones later on in life. If they’re never disappointed they never learn how to deal with setbacks. If they never lose, they don’t learn how to handle defeat. If they are never frustrated, they never learn persistence.

By handling ups and downs, our kids build the psychological muscles they need for life.

There may not be a roadmap, but let’s agree on some goals.

Unfortunately this post doesn’t end with a stress eradicator, a vacation, or a spa package (though there is nothing wrong with the last two). There is no clear roadmap for stress and the brain. But a couple things are clear:

It is absolutely our job as parents and as a society to do everything in our power to protect all children from toxic stress (not just our own).

It is also our job to make sure that our kids learn how to handle appropriate stress.

Goal One: Let’s work together to tackle toxic stress in our communities. Feel overwhelmed or defeated? Look for organizations locally that are doing work on racial and economic justice and get involved. The path forward is contested, complicated, and daunting – but doing nothing is not an option.

Goal Two: Let’s leave the quick n’ easy stress busters on the shelf and opt for building real resilience instead. Let’s believe in kids enough to set high expectations, encourage them to set achievable goals, and then invest in systems and relationships that help kids towards them.

Resilience is the ability to struggle through challenge and recover from appropriate levels of stress. Resilience is what enables our kids to fall down and pick themselves up again. Resilience is not hard wired. Instead it can be nurtured and learned.

Here are some places to start:

  • REMINDER: Let’s not use resilience or “grit” as permission to ignore oppression. Nurturing resilience in children does not substitute for tackling institutional and systemic challenges. For example, no child should ever be asked to “get grittier” in the face of systemic racism. Stress and resilience are both distributed in relationships and systems.
  • Listen to and acknowledge your child’s feelings. Emotional regulation is not about squashing feelings. It is about naming them, learning from them, and handling them. “You sound really angry and you have every right to be. Let’s take some deep breaths together and then we can decide what to do next.”
  • Encourage your child to come up with solutions to challenges. “What is getting in the way? What might we try next? What else could you do? Let’s come up with a game plan together.”
  • Praise effort and persistence more than natural talent. “I am so proud that you worked at that math problem even though it wasn’t easy. Way to go!”
  • Don’t do things for your kids that they can do themselves. My dad once cleaned the bathroom for me when I was a kid and my mom confronted him with a brilliant line: “Dave? Do you want a clean bathroom or a competent daughter?” She’s a wise one, my mom.
  • Follow through with limits and consequences. Easier said than done, I know. But oh so important. Gather your parent friends around you to help you with this one.