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Adults Out of Control: The Spread of Stress Reactivity

Are we raising a nation of stress-reactive individuals?

Concealed weapons laws, self-defense 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 a 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 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 Sergeant Robert Bale's shooting rampage.

Stress reactivity is particularly harmful. Stress reactivity means that you are threat reactive — that you have a low threshold for threat — and a 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, anticipating action, it moves blood flow away from the neocortex and into your muscles.

The stress response also makes you egocentric, as your self-preservation 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.

Neglect 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 their 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). Opioids, 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 hyperreactivity (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 the 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 that babies' needs are met promptly builds calm systems. Parents who don't respond to a 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).

What do stress-reactive people do?

Stress-reactive people think differently. They are paranoid and suspicious. In the throes of a stress response, our vision narrows, and our 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 it hard to get along with others, so instead of cooperating, they blame others for any troubles, whether immigrants, minorities, children, co-workers, strangers, or 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 U.S. (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.


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