Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain

Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child

Harvard Center on the Developing Child, December 2009

The ability to cope with novel and/or potentially threatening situations, such as an unfamiliar environment or physical danger, is essential to survival. This capacity is built into specific brain circuits whose development is influenced by multiple experiences beginning early in life. Environmental stimuli that activate these circuits are often referred to as stressors, and stress reactions are the body’s chemical and neural responses that promote adaptation.

Stressful events can be harmful, tolerable, or beneficial, depending on how much of a bodily stress response they provoke and how long the response lasts. These, in turn, depend on whether the stressful experience is controllable, how often and for how long the body’s stress system has been activated in the past, and whether the affected child has safe and dependable relationships to turn to for support. Thus, the extent to which stressful events have lasting adverse effects is determined more by the individual’s response to the stress, based in part on past experiences and the availability of a supportive adult, than by the nature of the stressor itself. This matters because a child’s ability to cope with stress in the early years has consequences for physical and mental health throughout life. Furthermore, categorizing the nature and severity of early stressful experiences helps us make better judgments about the need for interventions that reduce the risk for later negative impacts.

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