When Stress Is Insidious

Stress is insidious. As aware as our culture may seem to be about stress interrupting our ability to enjoy life, I wonder how many people truly understand the importance of attuning to the emotional subtleties of stress in order for it to dissipate.   

My husband and I noticed that when our son, Rylan, started kindergarten at age five, he would cling to me when separating. When I returned, he initially greeted me with desperate relief until we were on our way home. Then in the car he expressed loud, angry outbursts of energy, and I needed to pull over to the side of the road to gently hold and soothe him repeatedly. I remember feeling shock, shame, and confusion in my own body, mystified by the perplexing rages my son experienced when transitioning.    

Over time I learned that when we perceive danger in our environment, the way a child does when separating from a parent, the lack of safety amps up a gradual stress response that affects the whole body. When we feel safe, we can be calm: we can self-soothe and engage with our environment. As soon as we start to experience our world as dangerous, our sympathetic-adrenal system mobilizes us for fight and flight behaviors. While we often interpret anger negatively, it is actually a positive response, supplying energy to overcome an obstacle.   

When we perceive there is no hope of safety, for example when a child perceives the parent is lost from them, our primitive state of alarmed aloneness in our parasympathetic responds. This is a state of pure life preservation with no extra energy available. Studies show that the emotional responses of sadness and shame are associated with problems in coping and reflect a perceived lack of control over the situation. 

Children who show up differently, like Rylan did, may have nervous systems that repeatedly respond to experiences others perceive as neutral with a neuroception of danger or life threat. 

As they experience this shift within their system, they move through the branches of the vagal nerve, and under highly stressed situations there is an oscillation between the sympathetic-adrenal system (fight) and the dorsal vagal (freeze) that exhibits itself as rage. This creates a state of extreme physiological stress, similar to the strain on a vehicle when both the gas and brake pedals are slammed on at the same time. 

It is important to note the distinction between anger and rage: rage is more intense, the behaviors are not directed towards overcoming an obstacle, and the absence of control is reflected. Until the neuroception of safety (which is perceived below the level of conscious awareness) begins to be restored, these children simply are unable to connect with others to regulate their system. Because children's autonomic nervous systems are still maturing, they need sustained interpersonal connection to find and maintain a neuroception of safety. 

A research study called the "Infant Strange Situation" revealed that one-year-olds who didn't cry for their Mommy when she left the room had equally high levels of stress hormones (cortisol) to those who did. At this young age they had already learned hopelessness and moved into the shutdown system. Yet, because they do not appear to be upset, they are unlikely to receive the emotional response they need when experiencing stress. This can become a pattern for people of all ages, not just one-year-olds.   

Studies show that if a child's need for comfort is not met with emotional responsiveness and soothing, the autonomic nervous system, over time, can become wired for bodily hyperarousal or hypoarousal. 

Your child needs you, or those they is with, to be emotionally responsive to regulate their system. When we are soothed by another person, we start to build a nest of neurons that cradle the amygdala, our emotional alarm system, and we learn how to soothe ourselves. As children begin to integrate both social awareness and self-compassion, they begin to have more choice as they move out into the world.   

Distress hurts children in much the same way as a physical pain, with the same parts of the brain being activated. Being sensitive to very subtle environmental changes, Rylan found it difficult to be away from his parents, his secure neurochemical base, for even a relatively short period of time. 

One of Rylan's responses when invited to an activity used to be, "I can ONLY go if you or dad go with me and stay - or I don't feel safe!" He rarely had an overnight away from home, and that was okay - we were not in a rush. Over the years we saw that Rylan developed his ability to spend longer times apart from his dad and I at his own speed. 

He could go off to hang out with his friends or extended family because he trusted we were always available as a secure base that he could return to for emotional refueling before going off to spend time with them again. As we continued to respond with compassion and patience to his need for closeness, he naturally opened up to explore the world for greater lengths of time with confidence in his growing sense of self.   

I remember when I asked my Rylan how his play date away from home went, he said, "Oh, when I get upset I just say, 'Excuse me for a minute, I'll be right back.' and then I go into the bathroom and just cry. When I'm done, I wash my face, and go out like everything is okay!" 

Hearing this, I both celebrated and my heart broke wide open. I saw my child demonstrating his social awareness and his ability to self-soothe, and I celebrated the connection that allowed him to share that with me. At the same time, my heart broke open for the sensitivity of all children, especially those not neuro-typical, and their struggle to find their way in the world. They all need to be seen with compassion and understanding in a way that supports their growing ability to self-regulate on their journey in life. 


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