National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain: Working Paper 3. Work Pap. 2014;1–12.
The future of any society depends on its ability to foster the healthy development ofthe next generation. Extensive research on the biology of stress now shows that healthy develop-ment can be derailed by excessive or prolonged activation of stress response systems in the body and the brain, with damaging effects on learning, behavior, and health across the lifespan. Yet poli-cies that affect young children generally do not address or even reflect awareness of the degree to which very early exposure to stressful experiences and environments can affect the architecture of the brain, the body’s stress response systems, and a host of health outcomes later in life.
Learning how to cope with mild or moderate stress is an important part of healthy child development. When faced with novel or threatening situations, our bodies respond by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones, such as cortisol. When a young child’s stress response systems are activated in the context of supportive relationships with adults, these physiological effects are buffered and return to baseline levels. The result is the development of healthy stress response systems. However, if the stress response is extreme, long-lasting, and buffering relationships are unavailable to the child, the result can be toxic stress, leading to damaged, weakened bodily systems and brain architecture, with lifelong repercussions.
Not all stress is harmful. Stressful events can also be tolerable, or even beneficial, depend-ing on how much of a bodily stress response they provoke and how long the response lasts. These aspects of the response, in turn, depend on the duration, intensity, and timing of the stressful experience, as well as its context, such as whether the experience is controllable, how often and for how long the body’s stress system has been activated in the past, and whether the affected child has safe and dependable relation-ships to turn to for support. Because a child’s ability to cope with stress in the early years has consequences for physical and mental health throughout life, understanding the nature and severity of different types of stress responses to early adverse experiences can help us make bet-ter judgments about the need for interventions that reduce the risk for later negative impacts.
Positive stress refers to moderate, short-lived stress responses, such as brief increases in heart rate or mild changes in the body’s stress hor-mone levels. This kind of stress is a normal part of life, and learning to adjust to it is an essential feature of healthy development. Adverse events that provoke positive stress responses tend to be those that a child can learn to control and manage well with the support of caring adults, and which occur against the backdrop of gener-ally safe, warm, and positive relationships. The challenges of meeting new people, dealing with frustration, entering a new child care setting, getting an immunization, or overcoming a fear of animals each can be positive stressors if a child has the support needed to develop a sense of mastery. This is an important part of the nor-mal developmental process.
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