Table of Contents
- What Are The Different Types Of Stress
- Where Does Psychological Stress Come From
- What Are The Types Of Psychological Stress
What Are The Different Types Of Stress
There are two main types of stress affecting humans1.
Physiological stressors are physical forces that are strong enough to challenge an individual’s physical limits.
Psychological stressors are psychosocial strains that result from a person’s subjective interpretation, based on expectations, beliefs, or assumptions stemming from their previous experiences.
Where Does Psychological Stress Come From
Physiological stress results from changes in the outside world, whereas psychological stress is rooted in the brain.
Previous experiences affect whether a psychological stress response is triggered.
When the stress response is activated, a person’s perception of control over the stressor, based on prior experiences, determines the stress’ intensity, duration, and long-term effects.
That means, given the same stressor, each child perceives the stress differently because of their unique life experiences in the past.
What Are The Types Of Psychological Stress
The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child has identified three types of psychological stress (mental stress)2:
Adverse experiences that are short-lived create positive stress. Positive stress is normal in daily lives. Children may experience it when they meet a new relative, attend a new daycare, or have a toy taken away from them.
Children can learn to manage and overcome positive stress with the support of caring adults. A child’s ability to cope with this kind of stress is crucial to their development.
Tolerable stress refers to adverse experiences that are still relatively short-lived but are more intense. Examples of tolerable stress are the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, a frightful accident, and significant disruptions such as moving to a new city or the separation of their parents.
This type of stress can be tolerated if the child has the support of a caring adult. It is possible for tolerable stress to improve the child’s development if it becomes positive stress. However, this can only happen with adequate adult support. If a child doesn’t receive enough support, even tolerable stress can become toxic and cause long-term health problems discussed below.
Toxic stress is caused by intense adverse experiences that may last for weeks, months or even years.
Maltreatment of children, such as abuse and neglect, is one kind of toxic stress. Children can not effectively manage toxic stress on their own. Their stress response system becomes activated for a prolonged period. This prolonged activation can lead to permanent changes in the developing brain.
A caring adult can protect a child from toxic stress and bring back the child’s stress response system to its normal state.
How Does Stress Affect Child Development
Stress is a natural and inevitable part of life. People experience stress even before birth.
Some amount of stress is essential for survival. It helps children develop the skills they will need to cope with new and potentially dangerous situations throughout life.
Stress activates the “fight or flight” stress response, creating physiologic changes including an increase in respirations, heart rate, blood pressure, overall oxygen consumption and the release of stress hormone.
The stress response to positive and tolerable stress is transient. Once the stressor is gone, the body returns to its baseline state.
While positive stress and tolerable stress can help a child’s development, toxic stress can damage various parts of the brain circuits3.
Toxic stress can impact a child’s development negatively in the following ways:
Impaired Cognition, Learning And Memory
Toxic stress results in a large release of stress hormones, including cortisol. Sustained high levels of cortisol can cause the learning and memory center (hippocampus)4, and the executive function center of the brain (prefrontal cortex)5 to shrink.
As a result, toxic stress can lead to cognitive deficits and poor impulse control that may persist into adulthood6.
Overactive Stress Response
Toxic stress also causes the emotional-alert center in the brain (amygdala), to grow and become overactive. Children who grow up with toxic stress are more anxious7 or aggressive8. They often suffer from emotional dysregulation as well9.
Stress hormones can suppress the immune system, leaving an individual more susceptible to infectious diseases and chronic medical conditions10.
Extensive empirical data shows that toxic stress creates mental health challenges later in life, including somatic disorder, hallucinations, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder and suicide attempts.
Scientists have also found that children who grow up with sustained toxic stress are more likely to have poor health, lower sense of well-being, more work-related problems and die prematurely by as much as 20 years earlier9.
Toxic stress can be very damaging to a child’s physical and mental health. Early exposure to toxic stress can have long-term consequences on the bodies and minds. It is imperative that parents help their children avoid such stress.
What Causes Toxic Stress
Children’s maltreatment is a leading cause of toxic stress. Maltreatment can take many forms, including physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, neglect, and family abduction.
There are an estimated 8,755,000 juvenile victims in this country. That means that over 1 of 7 children between the ages of 2 and 17 years have experienced maltreatment2.
However, severe child maltreatment is not the only source of toxic stress. Extreme poverty, violence, bullying, household dysfunction and food scarcity can also result in toxic stress11.
Childhood toxic stress occurs when a child experiences severe, prolonged, or repetitive adversity and lacks the necessary nurturing or support of a caregiver to prevent an abnormal stress response12.
Exposure to less severe yet chronic, ongoing daily stressors can also be toxic to children.
These daily stressors include exposure to a family filled with conflict and aggression, and relationships that are cold and unsupportive.
When a child experiences toxic stress, their stress response system is activated and their body cannot fully recover by itself. Therefore, whether or not they are abusive, repeated hostility, unsupportive and negative interactions in the family trigger the stress response system the same way. That’s why these stressors are toxic, and they lay the foundation for long-term physical and mental health problems11.
The Difference Between Toxic Stress And Tolerable Stress
There is a crucial difference between mild and intermittent stressors of daily life and moderate, but chronic, stressors.
Failure, disappointment, and rejection are inevitable for children, and kids should not be shielded from them entirely. Mild, intermittent stressors are positive stress that can enhance a child’s development.
In contrast, toxic stressors often include sustained family hostility and a lack of warmth among family members, food insecurity, or under-resourced schools and neighborhoods.
Final Thoughts On Types Of Stress And Their Effects
Yelling and arguing are common in some families. Most of them are not extreme or abusive in nature. However, this type of stress can be toxic to children because the impact of mental stress is not determined by objective standard, but by the person who experiences it.
For little kids, even minor conflicts can be significant. They experience them differently from grownups. A parent who uses “tough love” regularly is invariably creating toxic stress for their children.
The helicopter parent, on the other hand, shields their children from any adversity, thus preventing them from flexing their stress-tolerance muscles.
Scientists have found that having safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with caregivers can protect a child from toxic types of stress. These relationships keep children safe from physical and emotional harm. They provide predictability and consistency in the child’s environment, and nurture children’s developing self-confidence and sense of self-worth13.
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