“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.”
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.