Stress--whether the daily stress of life or a major trauma, such as a car accident or death in the family--is a constant in our lives and in the lives of our children. It's normal for our kids' brains and bodies to experience surroundings of great complexity, all the while trying to maintain stability. Much of this is what neurologists call "positive stress." Our bodies and minds work to understand and integrate the stressor--put out the daily fire; learn a new, difficult skill; recover from an accident; or allow grief into our lives--and we notice that we've gained strength, understanding, new power, new purpose. Thus we can say that the stress has been helpful and meaningful, and our brains have not strayed into danger.
Negative stress, in contrast, is something we need to be very careful about, especially with our children. In the most general terms, as experts at the University of Maryland Medical School wrote recently, "When these symptoms persist, you are at risk for serious health problems. This kind of stress can exhaust your immune system. Recent research demonstrates that 90 percent of illness is stress-related." When stress goes beyond the stimulating (positive stress) and becomes debilitating (negative stress), symptoms fall into three categories: physical, emotional, and relational.
Physical symptoms include sleep disturbance; weight gain or weight loss; fatigue; asthma or shortness of breath; and increases in viral and bacterial infections, migraines, or other tension headaches.
Emotional and psychological symptoms include anxiety, depression, moodiness, lack of concentration or motivation, feeling out of control, substance abuse, and overreaction to daily situations. Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are all exacerbated by negative stress.
Relational symptoms include antisocial behavior; increased arguments, nastiness, conflicts, and isolation from others; and increased aggression and violence.
When does negative stress become chronic stress? When the stress continues for years at a time. The question I began asking ten years ago, when I started identifying negative stress patterns in families like the Jameses, Stohls, and Royces, was this one: "Could our families and large numbers of our children be experiencing not just negative stress for a given day or week, but a socially sanctioned chronic stress?" And continuing along those lines, "Could it be that we don't realize the extent of this condition in our own homes, schools, and communities?"
Having conducted some clinical "detective work," I believe I can now answer these questions.
Research on Chronic Stress
Present scientific research on chronic stress appears mainly in two fields of scientific inquiry:
Study of children traumatized in their early relationships by inadequate or violent care at the hands of parents and caregivers (this includes abuse). Such trauma raises cortisol levels (stress hormone levels) and thus "rewires" normal brain chemistry and circuitry.
Study of families caring for severely disabled or chronically ill individuals. Both the ill individual and the constantly vigilant caregiver can experience raised cortisol that can lead to depression and other brain chemistry issues.
When these people are acutely stressed, they exhibit and report these experiences: