The Impact of Stress on Cognitive and Emotional Development

© Susan Anderson

Outer Child is fueled by stress, and has been developing since early childhood in reaction (sometimes over-reaction) to it.

Stress hormones can mobilize our physiological resources in a real emergency, but when triggered chronically – especially in children’s developing brains – depending on whether they are sustained and intense, can lead to cognitive deficits, learning difficulties, low self-esteem, memory gaps, heightened emotional sensitivity (resulting in depression or anxiety in adulthood) and repetitive outer child behaviors.

Stress hormones change brain structure

In Taming Your Outer Child, I explain how stress hormones (especially cortisol) can damage branches at the end of the nerves in the hippocampus, pruning the neural connections in the brain, changing brain structure and creating deficits in short term memory and cognitive functioning.

It is also well known that adults who had elevated cortisol levels during childhood (they were raised in orphanages or they were lab animals subjected to various forms of separation/abandonment trauma), on autopsy are found to have smaller Hippocampi and other brain structural differences.

Stress hormones create learning problems

These stress hormones decrease the supply of glucose to brain and prevent the brain from firing, so the brain can’t send nerve impulses involved in learning. They also interfere in the production of another neuro-chemical, glutamate. The way glutamate works is this: Learning can’t happen until a threshold of glutamate is reached in the brain. It is only when a massive wave of excitation occurs and nerves fire that learning occurs. Children raised under conditions of chronic stress develop deficits related to the fact that their brain cells don’t fire sufficiently to induce learning. This impedes both academic and social learning.

Stress hormones affect emotional quality of life

Stress hormones are known to cause the decline of growth hormone, and it is believed that this affects the vagus nerve in the brain, setting the emotional brain at a higher level of reactivity, creating patterns of mood instability into adulthood.

Stress hormones and separation/abandonment

Researchers report that that rat pups that were handled in the first few weeks of life produced lower stress hormones as adults1. Conversely, when they (also rhesus monkeys, cats, human children) are separated from their mothers (even briefly), the adult mammal will tend to:

1) have higher glucocorticoid stress hormones

2) have higher flight/flight reactivity

3) avoid novel situations

4) have trouble learning

5) have trouble forming secure attachments

6) be more prone to depression as adults

7) have higher emotional reactivity.

It’s easy to observe all seven of these points in adults who’ve had stressful abandonment histories.

The good news is that regardless of childhood stress’s impact on the brain, we can do things to help the brain regenerate – that is, grow new neurons (in some cases) and new connections between neurons, and well as repair damaged ones. This information is presented to motivate and inspire you to use the Outer Child exercise program (explained in Taming Your Outer Child) as a way of performing physical therapy for your ever-changing brain.

1 Hofer