Kids and Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Our body’s multifaceted stress response mobilizes our inner resources for all that life throws at us. Last time we overviewed how the chronic demands and hassles of our modern life may repeatedly turn on physical stress reactions, which can add up to big wear-and-tear trouble.

Today, let’s look at stress in children. Do infants and children suffer problems related to stress too?

The answer is a very certain yes and we can push the clock back further to include the period of foetal development. Research shows that a pregnant woman’s experience of stress is communicated to the foetus.

You don’t want to be a stressed foetus. Maternal stress in mice delays the physical development of the foetus. Human babies of stressed mothers have a lower weight and are shorter babies. Underfed pregnant women have babies who have adjusted to their meagre nutritional circumstances to become very thrifty with any nutrients they receive. They secrete insulin quickly and so store away extra nutrients quickly. This essential adjustment continues through life and results in a vulnerability to obesity and diabetes later.

In fact, the die may be cast in early development for many problems later in adulthood, an area of research called Foetal Origins of Adult Disease. Like an echo, our early environment can establish a trajectory for life-long problems. Some of the dark clouds on the stressed infant’s horizon include a poorer regulatory response to stresses, greater levels of anxiety, problems with learning and memory and an array of medical issues.

Infants respond with stress to many novel situations. Six month olds react with stress to baths and medical examinations, but these reactions diminish if no harm is done. Because infants know zip about the world, anything that is novel can be stressful because any new stuff could be dangerous.

Infants react with stress to disruptions in their relationships too. For example, when a parent gives a neutral expression to their infant’s emotional response, the infant demonstrates a physiological stress response. A paper in Biology Letters last year reported that 6 month olds have more cortisol in their saliva (a measure of stress) after their parent stares blankly twice for two minutes. When these infants were brought back to the scene of the crime the next day, but with their parent acting normally, they again showed increased cortisol levels. The infants’ “Uh oh, here we go again” reaction on the second day anticipated changes in their relationship.

Children’s stress response turns on in reaction to parental anxiety, changes in attentiveness and general parenting style because these relationships are nothing less than their lifeline.

If you’re a parent it may be difficult to read this without your own cortisol levels moving up! Child development is a bumpy road and the stress response is one part of a vast company of adaptations that help kids develop adaptive resilience and learn about their external and internal worlds. It’s normal. Just as with baths and medical exams, if nothing bad happens, it’s not a problem. The fact is that the bumps are occasions for exercising healthy resilience. When kids have an adequate, safe and secure base – the healthy parental attachment – which supports their quick return to homeostatic balance, bumps are fine.

The concern is with chronic dysfunction that causes chronic stress which results in chronic problems.

A violent, unpredictable, cruel, alcoholic or neglectful home will absolutely be a profoundly stressful one for an infant and child, establishing conditioned patterns of behaviour and physical and emotional reaction that will be a part of the child’s inheritance for life.

Addressing any of this can begin at any time. We have a huge capacity to come to terms with adversity and to change the established patterns of reaction that are formed in childhood.

Workplace Stress

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

There are facts and there are fictions in this world of ours, and it’s a fact that it’s a fiction that an employer can save money and benefit the organization by neglecting the psychological needs of its workforce.

The value of looking after one’s employees derives not just from the wisdom of the ounce of prevention equalling the pound of cure. In complicated and time-lagged ways people respond to another’s caring with caring, to generosity with generosity, to effort with effort. People shine and are most likely to bring you their best in a climate of interpersonal acceptance and respect.

That might be all you need to remember and practice to save your business a boat load, but let’s look at some of the details just the same.

The costs of stress are exceptionally difficult to measure thoroughly, but they are clearly well in excess of $12 billion a year in Canada and are estimated to be about $7500 per worker per year in the U.S.

Because most organizations do not have their accounting tuned in to the bottom line costs of employee stress, big financial hits may be taken unknowingly. And the hits can come from many quarters, so to speak, reflecting the diversity of ways in which stress and our mental health affect our functioning. Lost productivity due to sick time, injury and low morale can be considerable.

Stress is the most significant factor driving absenteeism, grievances and (in the USA) worker compensation claims. Under stress and preoccupied with problems, we pay attention more poorly and so become more vulnerable to accidents.

Low morale is associated with higher levels of heart disease and depression. Morale problems can eat holes in motivation and goodwill. Low morale disables efficiency in many ways and increases the likelihood of maladaptive and destructive behaviours, and of poorer workplace relationships and team involvement. Some related workplace conditions such as aggression, bullying and social control are particularly noxious.

And how costly is it when valued and expensively trained but disgruntled employees leave an organization, which then further requires the recruitment and training of replacements?

The research is clear: Workers who feel that their organization is concerned with their well-being will respond with increased citizenship behaviours, enhanced commitment to their work and superior performance. It’s essential for the health of the organization that managers become aware of these contingencies instead of persisting in an alliance with values that are so Charles Dickens.

The idea that an organization is actually a complex, interdependent system is definitely not old school. But it affords a managerial perspective that recommends looking with rapt interest into the psychological health of one’s organization.

A 2010 paper in the Journal of Applied Psychology distilled the essential findings of over 200 studies and concluded that, “a supportive environment was the most consistent job resource in terms of explaining variance in burnout, engagement, and safety outcomes”. This finding was consistent across industries.

Contented employees are more productive, reliable and creative. Paying attention to the conditions that give rise to that contentment is a win-win and an advantageous business strategy.

A safer, more motivated and healthier workforce will help everyone sleep better at night, literally and figuratively. With better morale employees are more flexible around change and more likely to cooperate to help the common good.

A Gallup study concluded that, “If workers’ emotional needs are met, they become engaged with their companies, and their productivity, profitability, retention rate, and safety rate increase. They even get sick less often.” Otherwise, ‘Nice doing business to you’ might be the message employees get from their workplace.

Stress and Memory

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Chronic stress messes with your mind.

Sitting like tuques atop each of our kidneys are our adrenal glands, which sweat hormones such as cortisol when we’re stressed. Cortisol and its buddies have a huge portfolio of stress related jobs, and one of them is to regulate how we retain and remember things. They can slide across the blood-brain barrier and influence a whole lot of what goes on upstairs.

The research is pretty clear that the cortisol from momentary stress helps with the formation of memory by acting on brain cells. On the other hand, a lot of cortisol from chronic stress does some very bad things to our ability to learn and remember.

Before going further, let’s first have a look at some of the ins and outs, so to speak, of learning and memory. In the brain, learning is largely about strengthening patterns of connections between collections of neurons. Picture the possible patterns of Christmas lights twinkling not just on your house, but throughout your neighbourhood, your city, your country. Learning involves strengthening old and establishing new twinkling patterns.

And here’s some really good news. We’ve learned in more recent years that we normally make new neurons continuously and that this neurogenesis partly supports neuroplasticity and learning. New learning, a stimulating environment and exercise all boost neurogenesis.

So the two big learning processes to keep your eyes on are the making and strengthening of patterns of twinkling connections and the recruitment of new neurons that can twinkle-in as needed.

Acute stress seems to enhance all this precise twinkling very nicely, with cortisol helping to strengthen connections and capitalize on the new recruits.

But wait a minute. I’m not saying that we have to be stressed all the time in order to be at our best for learning. I’m really talking about stress-related learning. If we recall that stress and fear arise under conditions that may be threatening in some way, then a mechanism for super-learning the details around something of life-changing importance is very desirable. Fear conditioning can happen from one encounter and last forever, thanks in part to the boost from stress hormones.

This is why fear conditioning and traumatic memories are so powerfully and durably acquired. Our little brains are full of them.

We might not think that we have any particular memory for emotion. Instead, emotion seems to be some feeling that arises in the present moment, and seems to be faithfully about what is happening in that present moment.

But consider how we can often overreact emotionally to situations and only realize later that we were way out of line. How come!? The ‘way out of line’ is an emotional reaction that was ‘recalled’ inappropriately because the new situation was similar in some way to some old distressing and stress-boosted learning. That we might be sensitive, jealous, offended or even terrified at times when the situation doesn’t really call for those reactions is a reflection of emotional states being ‘recalled’, brought out in an active state, at the wrong but related time. An unhealed broken heart can bring rage or recoil without a second thought.

Now let’s look at chronic stress. When we experience stress frequently, the bath of cortisol harms brain cells and disrupts neurogenesis. Chronic cortisol is toxic to cells in the hippocampus, a brain structure that is crucial for forming new knowledge. Chronic stress can kill neurons in the hippocampus. Moreover, chronic stress also disrupts the formation of new neurons.

In this way, chronic stress damages the brain and impairs our ability to learn, remember and to regulate our emotion. Chronic stress can push neurons to the edge of a cliff, leaving them more vulnerable to being nudged over. Chronic stress may potentially worsen neurological outcomes from stroke, aging and disease.

What Causes Depression and Anxiety?

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

What causes depression and anxiety? Many notions have seeped into our collective understanding about how we come to be depressed or anxious. The most common and deceptively simple idea is that these problems result from a chemical imbalance in the brain. Big Pharma promotes this idea so that we might flock to their products to gain relief from our misery, which we often do.

More sensibly for me, the current and promising state of our understanding of the development of depression and anxiety identifies the chronic experience of powerlessness, defeat and entrapment as a prime culprit.

Lots of evidence shows that animals respond physiologically and behaviourally in ways that look a lot like stress, depression and anxiety particularly when social standing is lost. This response is understood to be an adaptive way of dealing with being an underling. A subordinate monkey or wolf is in real danger of death if it signals any challenge to its dominant counterpart. Evolved ways of unplugging from being a threat to a bigger baboon are life-saving. The evidence is that social mammals have evolved wired-in defeat systems.

But when powerlessness becomes a constant in life, these defeat systems get jammed on (hello stress system!), actually causing emotional and physical illness.

How we human animals may come to feel powerless follows from many familiar and persisting external and internal conditions.

Intractable problems at your job, chronic pain and health problems, relationship and financial burdens, bullying and harassment, and so many other conditions can collapse hope.

Also, our consumer culture breathes life into defeat through all of the many unrelenting messages that imply that we aren’t rich enough, successful enough or good-enough looking – we can’t get no satisfaction! These chronic reminders are all around us, fuelling our wanting brain, and poke deeper insecurities about how we “should” be.

Internally, we may be very caught up in grim habitual ways of seeing and thinking about ourselves. Punishing messages and abuse during childhood and later traumatic events can unconsciously script our internal self-narrative in adulthood. Unresolved early abusive relationships make it more likely that we’ll feel and behave with similar powerlessness in our dealings in the adult world. It’s a subtle quality of mind, but a very powerful one.

Feeling and thinking chronically that we’re unworthy or inadequate are internal conditions that feel uncontrollable, unremitting and inescapable. Perpetually feeling trapped and defeated is a fundamental way in which depression and anxiety arise. And bad coping just keeps us stuck in additional ways and compounds our hopelessness.

It then follows that seeing your life as it actually and presently is can be incredibly liberating, and dissolves the conditions that support emotional problems. Wanting and cherishing what you already have and distinguishing between needs and truly empty wants turns media buy-in to something sadly funny instead of controlling. Seeing our actual situation at work and at home, instead of seeing the view we get stuck in, can reveal empowering options and alternatives.

Coming to terms with past abuse and loss reveals those old self-views to be unfortunate relics that are without present validity.

Strengthening our ability to be mindful enables a clear look at our life just as it is, a look that includes those parts of our life and mind that create the illusion of entrapment and defeat. It’s no wonder that mindfulness is being found to be a powerful approach to relieve anxiety and depression.

Mental health is a tough undertaking. We feel a huge inhibition to talk openly about these aspects of life. The shame we hold leads to a hushed privacy, a deep reluctance to face our life and mind and to explore them with the interest and tenacity and delight that they deserve and require.

On Being Private

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Our culture does a pretty impressive job of teaching us to show each other that we’re, “Just fine, thanks”. The many ways in which our culture cultivates this kind of individual need to show that there are ‘no flies on us’ is an interesting subject in itself.

But if we’re all really OK, why are sales of psychopharmaceuticals powering through the roof? Why has the habitual use of substances, sex, food, gambling, consuming and shopping, and aggression in all its many forms become so widespread?

The suicides of nice guy-cum-hockey brute Wade Belak and others this past summer point to tragic truths beyond the confines of hockey today. They tell a story about our cultural imperative to be private, to rarely reveal and work with our fears and pain. Most of our private effort to not ‘burden’ other people with our problems derives from our own fear that the struggles that we have just shouldn’t even exist. All of us know the feeling of the social fear of being judged, criticized, ridiculed, dismissed, if we open up – the shame!

This privacy is conditioned by the messages from our ambient culture and intergenerational family history that teach that we shouldn’t be suffering; that, ironically, “There must be something wrong with me if there’s something wrong with me”. This may be one of the most insidious, cruel and pervasively damaging cultural perversions out there!

This privacy and shame arrests the very process that we need to encourage in order to grow and find contentment – it keeps us from dealing with life and our feelings effectively. If, like an enforcer in the NHL, we find ourselves in a career or some situation that causes us pain, and we don’t look at that pain and come to understand what it’s about, we’re trapped. To be trapped or powerless or defeated by life itself is to set up conditions that will often lead to depression.

Our individual and collective capacity to deal well with anything relies substantially on what we know about it. Consider that we need the World Health Organization and dedicated scientists to use all of the tools of science to look carefully in to any new disease threat. They investigate sources of new virus strains, learn about their nature and how they interact with hosts, and ultimately how we might deal with them so that pandemics are averted and lives are saved. Nothing useful can be done about something that we know too little about. And this research has to be done honestly, without contamination from business interests.

Swinging that logic over to our individual lives and mental health plainly indicates that our fears and anxieties must also be looked into, carefully and honestly, instead of ignored. Self-regulation requires self-engagement.

We each have some state of physical health, dental health and mental health, all of which benefit from preventive and remedial care. The products of neglected mental health include abusing our children (which feeds teen suicide), abusing ourselves in a zillion ways, physical illness, divorce, crime, greed.

Intellectual self-analysis is a withered pretender – your mental health most commonly relies on facing and knowing your feelings, learning how and why they arise and learning how to work with them. Just experimenting with lightly touching in to opening up with someone you trust, someone who’s healthy and accepting, starts us all in the right direction.

When we try to open up with a friend, a parent, a religious figure, a therapist, we’re taking an uncommonly big and brave step. Also, please remember the Golden Rule and watch your judgement, criticism, gossip and the other ways you keep this problem going.