How Your Stress Affects Your Child's Brain

"If you play violin for eight hours a day, then the parts of the brain responsible for helping you to play the violin will get larger. If you’re thinking stressful thoughts for the whole day then those parts of the brain are going to get larger and other parts of the brain will deteriorate."
—Jo Marchant, author of Cure

stress is the mind and body's reaction to danger or threat.

Stress is life-saving. It focuses our brains on escaping dangers. It floods our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol to increase our blood pressure and heart rate so we can move quickly.

And it's no news to you that we are stressed all the time, even when the perceived 'threat' or 'danger' is not logical.

Toxic stress is a habitual pattern of perceiving threat and danger even when it is not helpful to do so.

We can bring this sense of threat and danger to even the most benign, positive experiences:

  • I've got to go to the gym to escape the danger of being 'fat'
  • I've got to give the kids a bath tonight to avoid the danger of being judged a 'bad mother'
  • I've got to go on a date with my husband to avoid the danger of divorce

It is this constant sense of threat that changes our brains.

Over time, toxic stress can cause the amygdala (basically, the reactive emotional/fight-or-flight center region of the brain) gets larger and larger. The hippocampus (the part that slows us down and helps us think before acting) gets smaller.

And it's not just your brain that changes in the face of chronic stress.

Your chronic stress can change how your child's brain operates and grows, too.

As a social species, children look to their parents to help assess threat and danger. So when you are overly stressed and your amygdala is firing on all cylinders, your child's will, too. This is called empathic stress. Over time, your child's brain structure may change to become more stressed, anxious, and emotionally reactive.

(If you were raised by anxious or emotionally reactive parents, you might be familiar with this phenomenon - you are probably highly sensitive to taking on other people's upset.)

Now, as you're reading this, notice if this last bit of info is kicking you into 'threat and danger' mode. I am not intending to guilt trip you or shame you with this information. I share it because often times your suffering isn't enough to motivate you to change your habits, but the idea of your children's suffering might be.

You deserve to change your relationship to stress, and your children deserve it, too.

This habitual stress response is not good for anyone. And there is hope. Reducing stress, being more optimistic, resilient, and calm are skills that you can learn. You can reverse the effects of toxic stress on you, your family, your brains.

And you can start today.

How to start:

1) Connect to a Bigger Purpose for Changing Your Relationship to Stress.

Why do you want to change your habitual stress response?

Now here's the paradox - don't have your WHY be about threat and danger (e.g., "I've got to change my stress response to prevent my children's brains from being damaged!").

Define a WHY that is a nurturing gift to you and your family, not defined by avoidance of fear. For example, "I want to change my stress habits so that my family and I can enjoy our time together, and feel optimistic about life." Changing your stress habit needs to be driven by creative and positive forces, not negative and anxious ones.

2) Get In Touch With What Your Stress Response feels like in your body.

You cannot create a new habit until you get really familiar with the old one. Notice how your body carries stress. Usually it's going to be a constricting feeling where your energy pulls toward the mid line in your body. Your head hurts deep inside, your shoulders and neck are tense, your chest and heart feel tight. Also notice the habitual thoughts of threat and danger (illogical or not) than come with that sensation.

3) Soften, expand, and act as if there is no Present danger.

Unless there is a clear and present danger, notice your body's stress response and then experiment with literally softening it. While all of your tension is in the mid-line, try to radiate it outward by stroking your arms down to your fingers, stretching forward to touch your toes, imagine moving your blood flow and energy outward. Slouch and release your lower abdominal muscles - practice horrible posture! This will send your brain a signal that there must not be any imminent danger because of the way your body is moving.

With your words and actions, slow down and act as if there is no need to rush, no where to be, no presence of threat or danger. Maybe you will be a little late for school, that is not likely a mortal danger. Perhaps you'll eat chips and hummus for dinner and skip bath time, that is definitely not a mortal threat.

You can Do it.

Your children need you to do this, to send this message through your behavior that 'Everything is OK.' It really really is. They need you to show them that their little brains don't need to be on high alert, all is good, they are safe and well.

And just as importantly, you need this. This is your one, precious life, and you don't need to taint it with toxic stress. Knock on wood. There may be times when the threats are real, and you want to be able to tell the difference. And you want a resilient, healthy, body and mind to respond when the situation calls for you to click into high gear.

Chronic Stress is a Habit.

Calm, Resilient Optimism is a Habit.

You can learn a New way.

I believe in you.

With love and optimism,

Dr. J