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Toxic stress

Published: 
Tuesday, December 5, 2017

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Fredrick Douglass (1817-1895)

Fredrick Douglass. Born a slave, escaped, world-renowned anti-slavery activist. Said that so long ago?

Stress, ordinary stress, is good. Stress, toxic, is bad. Stress is any uncomfortable “emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioural changes.” Stress is this feeling of strain and pressure that we talk about endlessly. We experience stress when we believe we can’t cope. By that definition we are under considerable stress right now. Government disdain, malingering in public places, police incompetence, legal shenanigans etc, is raising island stress to toxic levels. As a former PM once famously said, “Pressure does buss pipe.” When will the pipe buss?

Toxic stress differs from ordinary stress in that it is strong and prolonged activation of the body’s stress management system and in children, which is my concern, “in the absence of the buffering protection of adult support.” That’s why, by the way, we adults keep asking “who we go put?” It really means, “who go save us?” We are children looking for an adult saviour.

The sine qua non of toxic stress in children lies in the absence of an adult figure, someone who supports the child. It’s long been recognised that the mother is the environment every child craves. Moreover, given a choice, a child will choose a warm body with no food over a cold body with food. Nothing an infant can do makes sense except in light of the mother’s presence and the hormones that interaction between the child and mother produces. Warm human contact produces the hormone oxytocin which produces pleasurable sensations in mother and child.

The younger the child, the more toxic is the stress in the absence of the mother. The idea of the first 1000 days as crucial in the development of the child’s brain, is being replaced with the idea of the first 1000 hours (six weeks) of a child’s life, when the lifelong bond between mother and child is finalised. Or the first 1000 minutes (first day) when the mother is sensitised to the needs of her child. Or the first 1000 seconds (first hour) when the initial brain networks for human development are being fired. Since politicians and administrators in third world countries have not yet caught on to the first 1000 days business, it should take another two generations before they begin to react appropriately.

Anti-stress connections in the brain are stimulated principally through skin to skin, gaze attachment and olfactory stimuli. Skin to skin is the “new” norm for newborn care. Skin to skin means exactly that, mother’s skin in contact with baby’s skin, not clothes in contact with skin. Touch stimulates oxytocin production. So does vision. At birth babies can see about 12 inches away, the distance from the breast to the face. And it’s the smell of the mother’s dirty, sweaty skin, mixed with vaginal secretions, that most appeals to a newborn.

Skin to skin, mutual gaze and smell result in a dramatic rise in maternal and infant oxytocin and dopamine. This give rise to those pleasurable sensations in both mother and child. At the same time brain architecture is moulded in a certain direction so that response to stress in the future is manageable.

What happens if the infant undergoes toxic stress, ie separation from the mother? There’s a dramatic rise in the stress hormone cortisol. Prolonged cortisol levels creates abnormal connections in the baby’s emotional brain or amygdala. These changes appear to be lasting and result in abnormal emotional responses in later life. Think of that the next time you get a bad drive.

Insensitive parenting resulting in insensitive adults are a consequence of babies being separated from their mothers at birth and later on in the life of the child. Much of the inappropriate emotional behaviour of adults can be explained by that.