Want to Heal Toxic Stress? Start With Relationships

By adopting co-regulation tactics and secure attachment behaviors, educators can both acknowledge the chronic stress many children are prone to and be a source of healing so students can learn and live with freedom and joy.

Stress and the Brain

Every day, we encounter a multitude of stressful interactions, challenging events and upsetting thoughts. Most of us move through our days along a continuum, from feeling safe to feeling stressed.

Our brains and bodies are well-designed to handle short experiences of high stress by quickly kicking into fight or flight mode to address whatever threat we might be facing. Heightened muscle tension, an increased heart rate, shortness of breath, and a spike in adrenaline and cortisol are common, momentary bodily responses designed to keep us safe. When the stressor goes away and we feel safe again, our bodies return to a calmer state.

Low to moderate levels of arousal or “stress” are even considered beneficial. The best learning and neuroplasticity happens when we're stimulated enough that we're not bored, yet feel safe and calm enough that we can focus and perform. Because we are social creatures, relationships that make us feel safe function as a regulating force as we move across this continuum - providing a sense of calm amidst chaos, decreasing stress and soothing us. This process of self-regulation with the help of another person is called “co-regulation” and is essential to developing a healthy resilience. As such, low to moderate levels of stress, paired with healthy co-regulation, set the stage for quality growth and learning.

Unfortunately, many children are both exposed to repetitive or prolonged experiences of stress, and lacking relationships that provide necessary co-regulation. Adverse childhood experiences, such as community violence, racism, household dysfunction or poverty, can cause a healthy bodily stress response to become excessive, long-lasting, and damaging. To make matters worse, when the stress comes from inside the home, the very relationship meant to serve as a buffer to stress and threat becomes its source. Trauma can have a profound impact both in a child’s brain development and their behavior.

“If you feel safe and loved, your brain becomes specialized in exploration, play, and cooperation; If you are frightened and unwanted, it specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.”

Bessel Van der Kolk


Co-regulating to Combat Chronic Stress

When comparing the brain scan of a three year-old child raised in a healthy, stimulating environment with that of a three-year old child who experienced extreme neglect, scientists reported that the neglected child’s brain was significantly smaller, had larger internal voids, and showed abnormal cortex development.

Not only does toxic stress impair brain development - it manifests in behavior as well. In a study by Dr. Bruce Perry on reactivity to stressful events, Perry illustrates the impact sustained stress can have on a person’s internal state. While a normal reaction to increasing stress would be to move steadily along a path from calm to terror, a more resilient response is an individual staying on the calm end of the spectrum for longer despite greater levels of stress. In contrast, children with traumatic backgrounds react to “normal” stresses as though experiencing an instance of terror or extreme danger.

Without the experience of safety, the brain becomes more reactive and more focused on survival, with much less room for exploration, growth and learning. This inequity in a child’s ability to learn stems from factors outside of their control. The good news is that educators are primed to do the co-regulation work with students that they need to develop healthier minds and bodies.

By adopting co-regulation tactics and secure attachment behaviors, educators can both acknowledge the chronic stress many children are prone to and be a source of healing so students can learn and live with freedom and joy despite the daily stresses of life.

About the author

Jasmine Barnes

Partner - Chicago IL

Jasmine studied sociology and journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and has experience in community organizing, event planning, multimedia and group facilitation. She is a passionate storyteller and strategic innovator. Written and verbal communication, collaborative problem solving and operational excellence fuel her desire to create a more just and equitable world where underserved and underrepresented populations have access to resources and holistic education.

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