Humans are designed to cope with brief moments of stress. When we experience situations of stress, for example when we are in danger, there is a reaction in the body, where hormones like adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol increases the amount of energy, giving us the power to put ourselves in safety. However, what affects our health adversely is when we are exposed to prolonged stress. Then our immune system will diminish, which thus becomes less able to protect us against various bacteria and viruses.
Today we become stressed by quite other things than what created anxiety and worry for our ancestors. Now we instead tend to feel pressured by the daily demands or reflections. But our bodily systems cannot distinguish between stress facing a deadline or if we are chased by a bear. Hence arises the onset of stress hormones in the body in both cases.
And one of the groups that are particularly vulnerable to prolonged stress is victims of sibling abuse. For children being exposed to constant violations by their siblings, makes them feel almost constant worry and anxiety of facing new attacks. Toxic stress can also occur in cases where children and young people feel unwanted, suffer from inferiority complex or having a constant fear of making a fool of themselves. Therefore they never really feel that they can relax and feel secure in life. And this perpetual and forced vigilance, I recognize in my own situation, as it was my perpetual companion for many years.
Researchers have observed that children who feel constant stress have higher levels of cortisol in their blood. And constantly elevated levels of cortisol in the blood contribute to a weaker immune system. The levels of cortisol should preferably not be elevated for more than four hours.
Because that can lead to the body becoming exhausted and this in turn can lead to bodily damage. Cortisol namely decreases the production of growth hormones and testosterone. Also, the balance and the amount of neurotransmitters, the feel good hormones serotonin and dopamine can be reduced to disturbingly low levels. The same applies to the hormone DHEA.
The hippocampus and the amygdala, which is a part of the limbic system in the brain, are also affected negatively by prolonged stress. These centers control a wide range of functions in our anatomy, such as the long-term memory. In addition, the body’s ability to rebuild itself deteriorates as a result of a declining cell production and metabolism.
Although professor Maria Faresjö doesn’t believe that there is enough scientific studies to prove that chronic stress weakens immune system, she suspects, however, that there is a strong link between severe mental stress in children and adolescents, and diseases such as juvenile diabetes, celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
Children who are exposed to prolonged stress may also have an increased risk in adulthood of developing cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, various stomach problems, intestinal diseases, endometriosis, type 2 diabetes, various forms of dementia, cancer, accelerated aging and premature death.
Prolonged stress has been shown to be particularly harmful to children and adolescents. And the younger the child exposed to prolonged stress, the more devastating the effects on the brain. Since the brain of infants and small children absorb almost everything that happens in its environment while growing and developing, it is particularly sensitive to various stress hormones. These in turn can cause long-term changes in the chronicly stressed child’s brain and impair memory as well as the ability to learn.
There are also indications that changes may occur in young children’s DNA when exposed to prolonged stress and trauma. But it is also important to remember that DNA is not the same as a predetermined fate, but only giving an indication of an increased risk.
Now the entry is over for this time. Please, take care of yourself and others. Thank you.
1.E. Carlsson, A. Frostell, J. Ludvigsson, M. Faresjo. Psychological Stress in Children May Alter the Immune Response. The Journal of Immunology, 2014; 192 (5): 2071 DOI: 10.4049/jimmunol.1301713
© Helén – text and photo