Toxic stress and the developing brain

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Mine Conkbayir on the precarious process of early brain development.

At a neurobiological and physiological level, children under stress cannot learn and they will fail to thrive, with implications for their general mental wellbeing. Anxiety, resilience, low confidence, depression, self-harming are all affecting children from an alarmingly young age of just three-years-old. For the first time, there exists large survey data on the mental health of children aged two years to four years. Results suggest that 5.5% (one in eighteen) of preschool children may have a mental syndrome. The rate was higher in boys (6.8%) than in girls (4.2%).

When we consider the current education system and all its excessive demands on children and practitioners alike, we know that things must change. Ofsted should be encouraged to actively assess settings on their mental health and wellbeing policies and action. While some schools are doing fantastic work in this area, it is not always recognized or credited. Moreover, these practices are by no means uniform across schools. In practice, Ofsted reports still barely mention mental health and wellbeing. Unless mental wellbeing becomes part of the inspection framework in a very concrete sense, the patchy practice and uncertainty will endure. Young children are likely to exhibit abnormally raised levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, when they are in stressful environments. This hormone mobilises the fight-or-flight response, with cortisol disturbances in young children which lead to suppressed growth, anxiety, depression and less memory capacity for intellectual development. A stressed brain cannot learn, predominantly due to this disconnect, with chronic, toxic stress derailing healthy brain development, altering neural connectivity, brain structure and function, ultimately leading to apoptosis—death of neurons.

Early brain development is a highly precarious process and this is partly because the brain is such a highly receptive, experience-dependent organ. This of course can be positive, when it comes to the teaching and learning process, given that synaptic connectivity increases as a result of engagement with the environment and the people and experiences within it. However, when an infant’s or child’s environment is not a happy, secure and enriching one, and is instead filled with harsh treatment and responses, poor care, abuse or neglect—synaptic connectivity, brain growth and consequent behaviour develop in line with these negative experiences—the brain of a young child develops directly in response to the stimuli it has been provided with.

■ Children who get more hugs have a thicker hippocampus.

The concept of the downstairs and upstairs brain was developed by Dr Daniel Siegel in 2012. This is an excellent way to understand and explain the impact of stress or dysregulation on the brain and subsequent behaviour. The upstairs brain (the cortex) is the rational, thinking part of the brain, responsible for concentration, problem-solving, reasoning, curbing impulsive behaviours, logic, persistence and self-regulation. The downstairs brain (home to the limbic system) is quite the opposite: it is reactive and defensive (where fight–flight–freeze responses originate).

The amygdala serves as the brain’s panic button and is activated when an individual perceives themselves to be, or is, in danger. The hippocampus is a limbic structure ikey to memory and emotion regulation and learning. The hippocampus is highly sensitive to stress. Hippocampal volume may be smaller in trauma survivors than others, with diminished ability to recall some memories. Some studies show that children who receive more hugs by their mothers have a thicker hippocampus than those who were not as well nurtured. Most of us love giving and receiving hugs—but they are actually necessary to healthy brain growth and development, with hugs increasing serotonin and oxytocin levels. Infants who receive regular touch have stronger neuronal connections and greater overall wellbeing. When a child (or indeed anyone) is in a state of hyper-arousal and is dysregulated, they ‘flip their lid’ due to their amygdala (panic button) being activated—and because the downstairs brain is faster to react than the upstairs, rational brain, what results are the types of behaviour that are usually misunderstood as ‘challenging’ or ‘naughty’. The child might hurt themselves or others, scream, shout, cry or throw furniture. Some adults may erroneously think and say that the child is having a ‘tantrum’ (a term I strongly dislike) or is ‘acting out’, with the child swiftly being reprimanded in some unhelpful way (like enforced time out or removal of privileges). Daniel Siegel is unequivocal about the damage caused by such outmoded forms of behaviour management in his statement below—one which I strongly feel should be embedded in public health campaigns, as it highlights the psychological impact of resorting to the isolation and corporal punishment of children: When the response is to isolate the child, an instinctual psychological need of the child goes unmet. Brain imaging shows that the experience of relational pain—like that caused by rejection—looks very similar to the experience of physical pain in terms of brain activity. All this happens within seconds of course and is exactly when a child needs sensitive adult support to help ‘put that lid back down’, to help the child to return to a safe psychological place. The key is equipping children to prevent their panic button from being activated in the first instance. How can this be achieved ‘in the moment’?

● Make sure the child and those around them are safe

● Name it to tame it—this simply means giving the child the time and space to talk about how they are feeling. Encouraging the child to talk through overwhelming emotions can be halfway to diffusing their intensity

● If they would like to, go for a walk outside (the fresh air can be instantly soothing)

● Calm the child down by empathising with them

● Practise a breathing exercise together to help calm the child down and lower their stress levels

● Talk through alternative ways to respond to triggers that could prevent them from flipping their lid in the future.

Mine Conkbayir
Author: Mine Conkbayir

Mine Conkbayir
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Dr Mine Conkbayir is a consultant, author and researcher specialising in neuroscience and Early Years.

This article is adapted from her book "Early Childhood and Neuroscience", published by Bloomsbury.

 

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