In the traumatology literature, stress is typically associated with post-traumatic stress and the Adrenal Stress Response, and not recognized as its own discrete category. It is typically lumped together with trauma and shock. Because there is already an abundance of information on these topics in the literature, we are address them separately in our book Healing Developmental Trauma: A Systems Approach for Counseling Individuals, Couples and Families
The Trauma Continuum
In our Trauma Continuum, we recognize “developmental stress” as a unique and separatecategory of behavior. It involves the neocortex part of the brain and the Social Engagement System part of the autonomic nervous system. We describe stress as “developmental” because an excess amount of it delays children’s development. Stress is simply the body’s adrenal response to an increased demand for energy.
Developmental stress has distinct behavioral symptoms, and involves awareness that is anchored in present time. The Social Engagement System (SES), a set of five cranial nerves identified by Stephen Porges, help keeps people socially and emotionally engaged during stressful relational experiences. The SES allows people to receive support from those closest to them, which reduces the flow of cortisol and other stress-related hormones.
Different Kinds of Stress
Distress causes concern or anxiety, is experienced as exceeding our normal ability to cope and feels unpleasant. It can be short-term or longer-term, typically decreases the ability to perform tasks and if long-term can lead to mental and physical fatigue.
Eustress is a term for positive stress that helps to motivate, to focus attention and energy and feels exciting. Eustress improves our ability to perform short-term tasks that are within our normal ability to cope. Stressors are difficult to categorize objectively because people react differently to similar situations. Having a child, taking a holiday, getting married, beginning a new job, buying a home, retiring, moving and receiving a promotion all seem like eustressors because they imply positive events.
However, these kinds of events can also be distressors, as there are negative aspects to each of them. An event can also switch from being a eustressor to a distressor, or vice versa, depending on how they unfold in a person’s life. What both distressors and eustressors have in common is that they activate the Adrenal Stress Response and prepare the Mind-body for higher levels of activity.
The Role of the Mindbody in Stressful Situations
As soon as the Mind-body perceives the need for additional energy, the brain activates the sympathetic nervous system. It tells the hypothalamus to produce a hormone commonly known as CRF. This hormone tells the adrenal glands to secrete substances that increase the heart rate, breathing, muscle responses, mental alertness and speeds up the body’s metabolism.
As soon as the crisis is over, the parasympathetic nervous system produces hormones to quiet the sympathetic nervous system and calm the person. This partnership between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is Nature’s way of helping people stay in balance and connected to those around them.
Behaviorally, a stressed person is moderately active and socially engaged, but may act edgy and anxious. They may have strained facial expressions, be unable to maintain consistent eye contact, talk louder, have difficulties in relaxing or sleeping, but are still experiencing reality in present time.
Stress and Brain Function
Stress activates the neocortex part of the brain. This then activates the sympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the production of adrenal hormones. These hormones create a burst of energy so that a person can cope with a short-term crisis. At the beginning of a developmental stress reaction, people attempt get physical and emotional support in a relational way. This activates the Social Engagement System, which then overrides the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and strengthens socially engaging behaviors involving the use of facial muscles to help the person return to balance
With the SES active, the person is able to make nonverbal cues such as smiling, head nodding, eye contact, eyebrow and eyelid lifting, and verbal cues such speaking calmly and empathically. Both the verbal and nonverbal cues help the person stay engaged with others so that they can problem solve, express emotions, and use their cognitive functions to identify and modify their behavioral patterns.
In Chapter Nine of Healing Developmental Trauma: A Systems Approach for Counseling Individuals, Couples and Families, we discuss effective interventions for treating developmental stress states.