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The way each person perceives and reacts to traumatic experiences and stress is very complex and dependent on a range of variables and an individual’s unique qualities. It is important for providers to recognize both what is occurring in the brain and body under duress and the efforts that can help counteract those impacts.
The body’s reaction to stress is mediated in large part by the limbic system, the emotional center that makes the complex connections between the sensory system, the nervous system, hormones and major organs (McEwen, 2006; Perry, 2005). With positive or even tolerable levels of stress, neurotransmitters work within all areas of the brain, sending the proper signals to allow us to think, act, feel and form new memories (Perry, 2013).
When a person is exposed to a threat or danger, even if it is just a perceived danger, the body naturally responds by releasing stress hormones such as cortisol which sends signals throughout the entire system. These hormones, when not excessively activated, cue the body to respond appropriately and protectively, helping the individual survive challenging or traumatic situations.
However, chronically or permanently elevated adrenaline and cortisol levels are detrimental to an individual’s well-being and healthy development. Too much cortisol has a negative impact on the proper functioning of the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex, and the body’s immune system, which over the long term can lead to severe and sometimes lasting damage throughout all of these systems (AAP, 2012; Perry, 2013).
Extensive research by neuroscientist Dr. Bruce McEwen, concerning the effects of stress on the body and brain has demonstrated the impairing effects of too much stress in terms of dysregulation and physical well-being. McEwen refers to this phenomenon as “chronic wear and tear” on the cardiovascular and other systems. According to research on excessive stress, severe stress or abuse can result in the development of a smaller brain. “Even less extreme exposure to toxic stress can change the stress system so that it responds at lower thresholds to events that might not be stressful to others, thereby increasing the risk of stress-related physical and mental illness.” (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2005.)
Prolonged exposure to physiological or psychological stress results in over-use or over-activation of the brain’s stress response and mediation systems. The extent to which stressful events have lasting adverse effects is determined by an individual’s past experiences, genetic traits, and his or her capacity to adapt to challenges.
Understanding the neurobiology is fundamental to understanding management of stress. There are small actions which come out of mere awareness of neuro-bio-chemical interactions and positively contribute to life expectancy and quality.
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