Chronic Stress and Trauma

I listened to an interesting TED talk last week about childhood trauma and thought I would share a few highlights of it.  It was by Dr. Burke Harris, a pediatrician who has written a book titled The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. (If you would like to listen to the talk click on this link to Dr. Harris’s talk.

Chronic Stress

When kids are exposed to very high levels of chronic stress or adversity it actually changes the way their brains and bodies are wired. That can lead to changes in brain development, changes in the development of the immune system, hormonal systems, and even to the way the DNA is read and transcribed. This is what can lead to a condition that’s now known as toxic stress which puts people at an increased risk of lifelong health problems.

The Bear Analogy

Dr. Harris uses an analogy about a bear that I think is extremely helpful. She asks us to imagine we are walking in the forest, and see a bear. The first thing that happens is that the amygdala, which is our brain’s alarm center, sounds the alarm. So, our brain sends a signal down to our adrenal gland, which makes adrenaline and other stress hormones, including cortisol, and so our heart begins to pound, our pupils dilate, airways open up, and we are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear.

But fighting a bear would not be a good idea. Why? because bears are big and they have teeth and they have claws. And that is why this alarm center in your brain, your amygdala, actually sends neurons to the part of your brain that regulates executive functioning: your prefrontal cortex. It says – ‘We’re not going to do a lot of thinking right now. We are just going to turn you down. Just be quiet. Because now is not the time for thinking. Now is the time for reacting.’

Another nice thing that your brain does for you when you’re facing a mortal threat is it activates your immune system because, if you’re getting ready to fight a bear, that bear may get his claws into you, and so you want your immune system to be primed to bring inflammation to stabilize the wound. This is exactly what we need to be able to survive coming face to face with a bear in the woods. If it happens once in a while that is not a problem but if it happens over and over and over again, especially when children’s brains and bodies are just developing this is when problems develop.

Adverse Childhood Experiences Study

All this work by Dr. Harris was begun after reading a study from the 90’s titled Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. This study divided childhood trauma up into 3 areas: a) abuse, b) neglect, and c) household dysfunction.  The next time I write I will continue this blog elaborating on these 3 areas that affect so many of our young children that we see. Hope you come back for the next installment. 

If you would like to read more about the Center’s approach to treating childhood trauma follow the link.


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