Moral Landscapes

Living the life that is good for one to live

Adults Out of Control: The Spread of Stress Reactivity

Are we raising a nation of stress-reactive individuals?

Concealed weapons laws, self-defensive shooting laws, vigilantism--what's behind the feeling of threat in the air?

Robert Sapolsky summarized the research on stress in his bestseller, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. Why don't they?--because their stress response is used for mobilization, to get them away from perceived threat. The stress response moves body resources into fight or flight mechanisms. Very useful for zebras and for our ancestors running from predators. It is not as useful for us now.

Stress itself is not in itself harmful, unless it comes at the wrong time, is too intense, lasts too long or happens too much. We can see that such things may have contributed to Staff Sargent Robert Bale's shooting rampage.

What is particularly harmful is stress reactivity. Stress reactivity means that you are threat reactive--that you have a low threshold for threat, and perceived threat triggers a stress response. This is not a good use of the stress response.

Sapolsky showed how stress reactivity can destroy health. But I think it can also destroy a society.

The stress response "makes you stupid" because it moves blood flow away from the neocortex and into your muscles, anticipating action.

The stress response also makes you egocentric as your self-preservational instincts take over, lowering your empathy and compassion.

I think we are building a nation of stress reactive people.

How do you build a stress-reactive brain? You probably think of soldiers with PTSD from tours in Iraq or children raised in physically abusive homes. Yes but stress reactivity starts much earlier. I'll mention two aspects.

Mis-care of young children

Babies cannot calm themselves down and, from the beginning of life, must be taught to do so through sensitive care. If caregivers let babies cry too much and too often without comfort, this can lead to stress reactivity in multiple systems. In the last post I pointed out three aspects of self-control that parents and other caregivers influence in the first months and years of life--social self control with mother, vagal tone (related to nearly all body systems) and hippocampal glucorticoid receptor proteins (for control of anxiety).

This is one of the dangers of cry-it-out parenting. It is very hard to change such reactivity later. The sensitive first couple of years of life are when thresholds are being established for brain and body systems.

The data mentioned in the last post call into question the common cultural perception that letting babies cry themselves to sleep represents adequate, or even sensitive, parenting (Gethin & MacGregor, 2009).

When babies are left to cry, with no parental attempt at timely comforting, their brains can be flooded with high levels of potentially neurotoxic stress hormones such as cortisol (Blunt Bugental, Martorell, & Barraza, 2003; Gunnar & Donzella, 2002). Opiods, which promote feelings of well-being, diminish during human sadness (Zubieta et al., 2003), and psychic pain circuits are aroused (Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams, 2003; Panksepp, 2003).

Epigenetic effects occur (genes are turned on or off and become part of subsequent cell generation). As a result, brain stress response systems can be wired permanently for oversensitivity and overreactivity (Anisman, Zaharia, Meaney, & Merali., 1998), leading to predispositions for clinical depression and anxiety (Barbas et al., 2003; de Kloet, Sibug, Helmerhorst, & Schmidt, 2005; see Watt & Panksepp, 2009, for a review), poor mental and physical health outcomes, and accelerated aging and mortality (for a review, Preston & de Waal, 2002).

Unrelieved distress in early life reduces the expression of GABA genes, leading to anxiety and depression disorders as well as increased use of alcohol for stress relief (Caldji, Francis, Sharma, Plotsky, & Meaney, 2000; Hsu et al., 2003). When emotional dysregulation becomes chronic, it forms the foundation for further psychopathologies (Cole, Michel & Teti, 1994), especially depression.

Infant emotional dysregulation is related to subsequent mental illness, including a propensity for violence (Davidson, Putnam & Larson, 2000). Stress that leads to "insecure attachment" disrupts emotional functioning, compromises social abilities and can promote a permanent bias towards self-preservation (Henry & Wang, 1998; also see Schore, in press, for a review). Children who are not nurtured well in early life tend to be more stress reactive, aggressive and troublesome.

Bottom line: Parents shape self-control in babyhood with nurturing care. Making sure babies' needs are met promptly builds calm systems. Parents who don't respond to baby's needs lead to systems that are poorly shaped and easily stressed. What the baby's body "practices" (calmness or distress) becomes habitual.

Scared Children

Generally, children are highly reactive to noise in the first five years of life and need to be protected from things that scare them. One trauma during this time can have lasting consequences.

Children are sensitive to different types of scary media at different ages. Joanne Cantor has mapped this out. Grotesque and transforming threatening images scare young children; real-life violence scares elementary school children. Seeing a show at the wrong time can be scarring (ask your friends how many sleep with a light on and when it started-chances are it was when they saw a too-scary movie at the wrong age). See here.

What do stress reactive people do?

Stress reactive people think differently. They are paranoid and suspicious.  In the throes of a stress response, vision narrows, action choices are focused on self-protection. Violent action can seem like the right, moral, thing to do.

George Zimmerman is a case in point.  He stalked and killed an innocent teenager. Apparently, his anxiety got the better of him.

Stress reactive people often are unaware that their perception is out of line. Their current filters are influenced by their past trauma. They tend to be oppositional-their social skills are undermined by early or later trauma, making hard to get along with others, so instead of cooperating, they blame others for any troubles, whether immigrants, minorities, children, co-workers, strangers, neighbors.

Stress reactive people shrink from civic dialogue. They don't trust others so why get to know them and have conversations and cooperate? Trust and civic engagement have been diminishing for the last 50 years in the USA. (I think our hospital birthing practices have something to do with that too.)

Stress reactive people pass laws like "Stand Your Ground," and concealed weapons laws. They never established a sense of safety in childhood due to poor care, trauma, abuse or neglect. They carry the memory in their bodies and continuously seek safety. But remember, a stress reactive brain does not think or empathize well, so such laws seem "logical.".

Remember, stress reactive people spend a lot of time being "stupid" and egocentric.

How do adults foster stress reactivity in themselves?

Watching Television: Watching television in general makes you think the world is more violent than it is. It makes you think people are less trustworthy than they are. This encourages and maintains stress reactivity. Robert Putnam identified TV as the source of distrust that declined in the populace since WWII. I think it may have as much to do with what we've been doing to babies and children since that time.

Immersion in media (shows,blogs, websites) and activities that emphasize an "us-against-them" mentality: Social stress reactivity is encouraged when you immerse yourself in environments that scapegoat and blame particular groups for your unhappiness.

One of the most dangerous ideas is believing that you or your group are better than other people. This leads to suspiciousness and distancing from 'those people,' making harmful action against them more permissible.

All these things are good ways to tear apart a society.

If we consider self-control as an achievement of development, we might wonder what happened to adulthood. Self-control has a lot to do with controlling negative emotions and stress in social situations. This is best learned as a baby because it's a challenge to learn as an adult.

 

References

Anisman, H., Zaharia, M.D., Meaney, M.J., & Merali, Z. (1998). Do early-life events permanently alter behavioral and hormonal responses to stressors? International Journal of Developmental Neuroscience, 16(3-4), 149-164.

Bystrova, K., Ivanova, V., Edhborg, M., Matthiesen, A.S., Ransjö-Arvidson, A.B., Mukhamedrakhimov, R., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Widström, A.M. (2009). Early contact versus separation: effects on mother-infant interaction one year later. Birth, 36(2), 97-109.

 Caldji, C. Francis, D., Sharma, S., Plotsky, P.M., & Meaney, M.J. (2000). The effects of early rearing environment on the development of GABAA and central benzodiazepine receptor levels and novelty-induced fearfulness in the rat. Neuropsychopharmacology, March, 219-229.

Caldji, C., Diorio, J., & Meaney, M.J. (2003). Variations in maternal care alter GABA(A) receptor subunit expression in brain regions associated with fear. Neuropsychopharmacology, 28, 1950-1959.

Champagne, F. A., Weaver, I. C. G., Diorio, J., Dymov, S., Szyf, M., & Meaney, M.J. (2006). Maternal care associated with methylation of the estrogen receptor-alpha1b promoter and estrogen receptor-alpha expression in the medial preoptic area of female offspring. Endocrinology, 147(6), 2909-2915.

Champagne, F. & Meaney, M.J. (2001). Like mother, like daughter: evidence for non-genomic transmission of parental behavior and stress responsivity. Progress in Brain Research, 133, 287-302.

Champagne, F., & Meaney, M.J. (2007). Transgenerational effects of social environment on variations in maternal care and behavioral response to novelty. Behavioral Neuroscience 121, 1353-1363.

Champagne, F.A., & Meaney, M.J. (2006). Stress during gestation alters maternal care and the development of offspring in a rodent model. Biological Psychology, 59, 1227-1235.

Dawson, G., Ashman, S.B., & Carver, L.J. (2000). The role of early experience in shaping behavioral and brain development and its implications for social policy. Development and Psychopathology, 12, 695-712.

 Ersche et al. (2012). Abnormal brain structure implicated in stimulant drug addiction. Science, 3335(6068), 601-604.

Francis, D., Diorio, J., Liu, D., & Meaney, M.J. (1999). Nongenomic transmission across generations of maternal behavior and stress responses in the rat. Science, 286, 1155-1158.

Francis, D.D. (2002). Naturally occurring differences in maternal care are associated with the expression of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors. Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 14, 349-353.

Francis, D.D., Diorio, J., Plotsky, P.M., & Meaney, M.J. (2002). Environmental enrichment reverses the effects of maternal separation on stress reactivity, Journal of Neuroscience, 22(18), 7480-7483.

Ghanem, T; Early, S (2006). "Vagal nerve stimulator implantation: An otolaryngologist's perspective". Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery 135 (1): 46-51. doi:10.1016/j.otohns.2006.02.037. PMID 16815181.

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Liu, D., Diorio, J., Tannenbaum, B., Caldji, C., Francis, D., Freedman, A., Sharma, S., Pearson, D., Plotsky, P.M., & Meaney, M.J. (1997). Maternal care, hippocampal glucocorticoid receptors, and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal responses to stress, Science, 277(5332), 1659-1662.

McGowan, P.O., Sasaki, A., D'Alessio, A.C., Dymov, S., Labonté, B., Szyf, M., Turecki, G., & Meaney, M.J. (2009). Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse.  Nature Neuroscience, 12, 342 - 348.

Meaney, M.J. (2001). Maternal care, gene expression, and the transmission of individual differences in stress reactivity across generations. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24, 1161 -1192.

Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophsiologial foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, self-regulation. New York: W.W. Norton.

Weaver, I.C., Szyf, M., & Meaney, M.J. (2002). From maternal care to gene expression: DNA methylation and the maternal programming of stress responses. Endocrine Research, 28, 699.

 

Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education.

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