Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Toxic Stress

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 31, 2013

Toxic Stress Response

“Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”

See also…

Parents may facilitate development, but more likely they need to “get out-of-the-way,” as I like to say. Getting out-of-the-way means protecting kids from what is now labeled as “toxic stress”. Children are biologically programmed to develop and mature, and with a basic environment of positive affirmations, good attachments, and provisions for food, sleep, friends, and education, most children and grow and flourish and reach their biological potential. However, in the face of tension, violence, or deprivation, then the child must go into what I call “brain freeze” and this stunts the development of the brain, in terms of understanding and knowing how to please oneself. Psychotherapy steps into to deal with toxic stress, but this requires many hours of trying to understand what happened in the preverbal period, where most memories are implicit and not explicit, Uncovering the trauma, so the adult can return to the developmental train where they learn to love themselves is a lengthy process, involving struggle and psychological pain.

Emily, fifty-six, youngest of eight children, always felt like she was a “burden” and consequently, never experienced love from her mom. As a result, Emily spends her time feeling angry, at little things and big things. She is angry with her husband, her children, her friends and her co-workers. She collects all of their misdeeds and she stew over them, simmering with ill feelings day in and day out. By Emily’s account, all of these people in her life are trying to make her feel better. I suggest an alternative viewpoint that Emily is really angry at her mom, for depriving her of a loving environment, and now that anger is transferred on to the meaningful people in her life. “It is a struggle for me to see that,” she says, as she cries. “The struggle is a good one,” I say, highlighting that understanding projection is a struggle, and it is hard to see when a feeling is being displaced. “The struggle implies that you are trying to see another point of view, and in that angst, there will be growth and understanding. Emily’s toxic stress hit her pretty hard, such that the only way she can handle a feeling is to throw it out to someone else and then feel victimized by that feeling, rather than owning that feeling and then trying to metabolize it. The toxin is the neglect. The anti-toxin is her awareness of it.

5 Responses to “Toxic Stress”

  1. Jon said

    The video (3. Toxic Stress Derails Healthy Development) states that toxic stress in a child effects the physical growth of the brain in a child. The effects of the psyche follow from that. Is there any research that supports this? Assuming the answer is yes, what is effect on the brain of psychotherapy given to an adult survivor of childhood toxic stress?

    • You nailed it, Jon. I am not familiar with the research that supports it. It seems very speculative to me, but still interesting. The further speculation is that psychotherapy re-wires, to a limited extent. The adage is “that which fires together, wires together,” suggesting that if relationships were filled with fear as a young child, then future relationships also elicit fear, as they have “wired together.” As such, when psychotherapy introduces the possibility of a relationship without fear, then re-wiring might be possible. This is all just to say, that we have associations in our mind, based on our experiences, and so new experiences can change our associations, and thereby heal our wounds on a very deep level. Thanks.

  2. Ashana M said

    This is probably a topic where I disagree most, as I believe at this point that what makes us most human is our capacity to learn, and so nearly everything about what we do and how we think is acquired and the product of culture, either family culture or the larger culture–this includes everything from speech to reasoning processes to how to do well in school to how to make sense of and manage emotions. Given that, I would speculate that Emily has instead developed a habit of being angry, in the same way you might develop a habit of smoking when you drink. It’s associative (the somatic marker hypothesis, essentially). Certain events transpire, and she has felt angry before in that same circumstance, and so she feels angry again. I would also speculate that she grew up with someone who had the same habit of anger and the same way of responding to anger–by storing up slights and stewing over them–and so the entire process is a learned process, which also means it can be unlearned (although learning new habits is always easier than unlearning old ones). One of the first things we show children is that they should imitate us. it wouldn’t surprise me terribly if they actually did learn to imitate the adults around them.

  3. Shelly said

    I like Ashana’s interpretation. I think she has a point. I see this with my own kids. My kids imitate our behaviors at home–my youngest son throws temper tantrums and screams and yells, but when he sees me, he immediately stops. To me, this means he is imitating my husband’s response to stress when in my husband’s presence, but when in mine, he adopt’s my behavior.

    • Shirah said

      Yes, and so parenting matters because modeling calmness begets calmness. I am reminded of the comedy routine where the parent swats the child as she says it is not OK to hit. Having said that, it is more complicated then just modeling, but that is one important piece. Thanks.

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