Pathways to Wellness

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Stress and the developing brain

Stress is unavoidable, even in the lives of babies and young children.  Being left alone for short periods of time, meeting new people, being in strange surroundings, or going to the health centre can be stressful for young children.  Learning how to cope with these kinds of stressors is both necessary and healthy – it's an important part of normal development and parenting.

Some children experience a higher level of stress – due to a serious illness or accident, divorce, or the death of a parent or sibling.  Children can learn to cope with these difficult situations if there is a supportive adult who comforts the child and creates a safe, loving environment.  When adults act as a buffer, even high levels of stress can be tolerated and children can become resilient.

But stress becomes toxic when it is extreme, frequent or long-lasting and there is no adult to comfort or support the child.  Abuse and neglect, living with a parent who has a serious substance abuse or mental health problem, experiencing poverty or witnessing violence in the home are the kinds of situations which are toxic for young children.

Living with toxic stress triggers the flight-or-fight response too often and without the support of a caring adult, there is no relief.  The parts of the brain which control the flight-or-fight response get strengthened and they are more easily triggered in the future – these changes can be permanent.  Children exposed to toxic stress are on "high alert".  They react more strongly to minor stresses, and are more likely to have physical and emotional problems.  Paying attention, learning and getting along with others is harder for them than for other children.  

Toxic stress during childhood and adolescence has lifelong effects.  A study of more than 17,000 people found that the more toxic stress a child experienced, the greater the impact on their health.  As adults, they are more likely to have social, emotional and cognitive problems.  They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and take other kinds of risks.  The end result is higher rates of disease, injury, disability, dysfunction and early death.  

Here's a video from Harvard that talks about the impact of toxic stress. 


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