In difficult times we all feel stress and anxiety, including our children. Speaker, author and academic Dr Michael Nagel helps explain the impact of stress on children and how to manage it.
One of the most troubling trends we are seeing in many western countries is a growing number of anxious children.
Anxiety, in itself is linked to stress and stress is a very difficult concept to define given the broad array of individual factors that can create stress. What is well known, however, is that stress is incredibly detrimental to the brain and healthy development.
Understanding the chemical reactions
In itself, stress is an adaptive response initiated by the emotional centre of the brain. This response happens when we feel threatened resulting in a myriad of chemical reactions, usually in the form of stress hormones, preparing the body to fight or flee from the threat.
These chemical reactions are helpful in genuine threatening circumstances but too much stress, or more worryingly a chronic overreaction to stress, overloads the brain with survival chemicals that evolution designed for short-term duty in emergency situations only.
Long term exposure to the cumulative effects of stress hormones has been shown to contribute to anxiety disorders and even damage parts of the brain and kill certain brain cells. The day-to-day realities of life can evolve into stressors resulting in the brain activating the very stress response designed to protect itself.
The impact of stress on children
Because the brain continues to mature throughout childhood, children may be more vulnerable than adults to the impact of stress. A child’s brain is still developing and consequently, the developing brain is far more sensitive to the chemical processes associated with stress and initiated in the mind.
There is a large body of research1 that tells us that children who live in chronically stressful environments develop a variety of disorders as they get older.
There is also a growing body of neuro-scientific research telling us that the powerful chemicals designed for our survival in stressful situations can actually impact on the normal growth and development of very important regions of the brain, especially during the early stages of life.
When a situation is interpreted as stressful, it triggers a system in the brain that tells the hypothalamus to release a series of reactions. These reactions, in turn, signal the fight or flight mechanisms of the brain to prepare the body for action.
For example, the skin may constrict to diminish any bleeding in case of injury and there is likely to be an increased flow of oxygen to the muscles requiring the heart and respiratory system to work harder.
Stored carbohydrates in the body are liquidated to provide sufficient fuel for any measure of response while the immune system becomes hyper-vigilant in preparation for whatever part of the body is injured.
The brain also produces an elevation of the hormone cortisol, a powerful chemical designed to shut down thinking and prep us for fighting or running away. All of these actions are part of an evolutionary process designed for short term purposes which is why continuous stress responses and anxious feelings can mean trouble over the long term.
Anxiety is a bit different than stress. While stress is a response to threat, anxiety is a sustained mental health disorder that can be the result of, or triggered by, stress. Stress is a highly individual experience that depends on specific psychological determinants to ignite a stress response.