Understanding Stress Reactions

One challenge to parents and teachers dealing with very young children, or children with impulse control problems or temper problems, is stress regulation. We as humans have multiple neural systems to regulate stress. In humans, the perception of threat is registered as stress, on a continuum from mild anxiety to overwhelming trauma. Our life experience and our genetic inheritance influence the meaning we make of sensory input – visual, auditory, touch, postural sensations – creating a repertoire of meaningful associations over time. Potential threat initiates what Bruce Perry calls “a cascade of patterned neuronal activity in these primitive areas of the brain, which moves up to more complex parts of the brain” (Perry, 2006, p. 31-32).

In my clinical experience I see children whose repertoire of meanings include traumatic touch, for example in children who have experienced abuse. I also see children for whom certain kinds of touch is perceived as threatening not because they have been abused, but because their sensory system is over-reactive to certain kinds of sensory information. One reason for this can be developmental problems subsequent to prematurity or genetic vulnerabilities. This sensitivity can also be true of visual and auditory stimuli. For some children, a direct gaze can be overwhelming, because they have been traumatized by violent experience – such as the color red – or because their social engagement system cannot tolerate direct social contact. 

Although current thinking conceptualizes the stress response in a more complex way, the traditional and simpler way of understanding the stress response in terms of the “paired antagonism” of parasympathetic and sympathetic systems of the autonomic nervous system (Porges, 2009, p. 4). According to this model, the sympathetic nervous system governs what is the commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. An initial response to the perception of a threat, registered in the limbic system of the midbrain, especially the amygdala, may cause flight or an aggressive reaction. For example, if an individual sees a threatening shadow in his room, he may lurch backwards, or if he is provoked by a competitive driver, he may gun his engine. Usually, however, an inhibitory response in the cerebral cortex is stimulated to calms the individual in the first instance so that he can inspect the shadow and realize that it is a coat hung on a chair and in the second instance so that he can reason with himself and consider the dire consequences of road rage.

Perry B (2006). Applying principles of neurodevelopment to clinical work with maltreated and traumatized children, the neurosequential model of therapeutics, reprinted from Working with Traumatized Youth in Child Welfare, edited by Nancy Boyd Webb. 

Porges S (2009). Reciprocal influences between body and brain in the perception and expression of affect, In: The Healing Power of Emotion: Neurobiological Understanding and Therapeutic Perspectives, Eds: D Fosha, D Siegel, M Solomon, WW Norton & Co.

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