The Power in the way we Think

Posts tagged ‘brain stem’

Stress and Children

Kids experience stress just as much as the rest of us.

And sometimes more intensely than the rest of us.

I hope you’re all wondering why this is, because I’m about to share it with you.

It all originates in the field of child development. Or more specifically, brain development. When I began this series on stress we talked about the Triune Brain. We discussed how the brain processes stress and a little bit about the ages at which the different parts of the brain develop.

I’d like to discuss these age differences in a little more detail.

When we are born the only part of the brain to be fully developed is the brain stem, which is responsible for our physiological responses such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. If this part of the brain is damaged in some way, your survival may be threatened and it is possible that you would be looking at support from machines to stay alive. The brain stem is also responsible for the physiological aspects of the stress response – elevating the heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure.

The limbic region is the next part of the brain to develop, usually completed at around 3-5 years of age. This controls our emotions. The amygdala lives in the limbic region and if you remember back to my previous post on this, its job is to make an assessment about whether your life is at threat. So when we perceive our life to be in danger, our emotions, such as fear and anxiety, are activated.

The final part of the brain to develop is the neocortex, which is responsible for our ability to think, reason and solve problems. This begins to develop properly in our teens but isn’t completely developed until we reach our mid 20’s. When our stress response is activated, the blood flow to the neocortex is reduced, and therefore our ability to think is impaired.

Here is a simple diagram that shows this relationship.

triune brain 4

Let’s think about these facts in relation to children. As adults, when we become stressed we can sometimes use our reasoning ability to calm this response and get back to our balanced state (homeostasis). Remember though, by the time we reach our mid 20’s, all 3 areas of the brain are fully developed. This means that the sizes of the limbic region and the neocortex are somewhat even, thereby making it easier to reason things out when we’re stressed.

Children, however, do not have this. Because of their brain development, their limbic region and neocortex are different sizes, which means that their emotions have much more control than their thinking and reasoning ability. So when their stress response is activated, they are unable to down-regulate, or calm the response. This is not only due to the size difference, but also because the blood flow to the neocortex is diminished. So they have all these emotions running through their mind and body, but are unable to use logic to bring themselves back to a place of balance.

I hope this makes sense, because it is an integral part of why children’s behaviour can become volatile at the smallest things.

Sometimes their parents or another adult is able to “talk them down”, particularly if they combine some simple breathing techniques with ‘loaning’ out some logic or reasoning power. But sometimes the stress response is engaged to such an extent that the only way to calm it is to allow it to burn itself out. In this way kids are able to burn off any adrenalin with physical activity. Most of the time you’ll probably find this happen with the use of some pretty intense tantrums, complete with throwing things, yelling, hitting and so on.

The key to helping your kids to manage their response comes by making them more aware of their body and the signals it gives out to indicate stress. Look for a post on this in the next few days. In the meantime, try reviewing an article I wrote back in August about some secret kids business. In it I discuss how kids can learn to manage their own self-care by creating a box in which to keep some special things to help them calm down.

A special note for children who have experienced trauma or abuse, particularly at an early age. Neurobiological research has found that these kids often have an amygdala that is enlarged. This means that it is much more easily activated. And this in turn means that there is a larger difference in size between the limbic region and the neocortex, making it even more difficult to regulate their emotions. For these kids (well, for all kids, but especially for these ones), the key is safety and security. More than anything else, they need to understand that they are safe. So the best thing you can do is to remain calm, firm and completely sure in your attempts to support them. As you work at calming their response, regulate your own breathing using the belly breathing techniques we have already discussed. We all know that children pick up on our energy and moods, so the calmer you become, the easier it will be to help regulate them. And please consider seeking psychological support for these kids. Not only can a professional teach them how to regulate their emotions, they can work with you on specific strategies to use with them.

mirror neurons

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The stress response and the Triune Brain

Yesterday we brought all of our definitions together and discussed the impacts that stress can have on you. While the effects can be severe, the good news is that we can minimise them by implementing some lifestyle factors. We’ll cover those things later in the month.

Today I’d like to discuss the stress response. This takes us back to the in-built survival mechanism we all have in our brains. We are biologically programmed to do everything we can to remain alive for as long as possible. Some guy named Paul McLean introduced us to something called the Triune Brain, which breaks down its complexity, dividing it into 3 parts that make it a lot easier to understand our survival instincts. If you’d like to read more about the Triune Brain you can just google the term, but here is a site to start you off.

So this post is likely to be a little lengthy and technical, so read it at your own pace. Feel free to put it aside and come back to it later. I’ll include diagrams and subheadings to break it into manageable parts. If there is anything you don’t understand, please ask. It’s important that you are able to process and understand this information, because it will help you to implement strategies that work for you.

The Triune Brain

Ok. So as I said, the Triune brain is divided into 3 parts and together they explain our evolutionary processes.

Brain Stem

This part of the brain is the only part that is fully developed at birth. It’s located at the bottom of the brain and runs down into the top of the spine. It’s responsible for our basic human survival. Breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and so on. It also has part responsibility for the stress response, otherwise known as the fight/flight response (which I’ll explain soon).

To paint a picture for you, if you hold your arm up in front of you, your forearm between your wrist and elbow would be the brain stem.

Limbic Region

This is generally fully developed between the ages of 3-5. It sits on top of the brain stem and is responsible for our emotions and plays a big part in our stress response (fight/flight). It also plays a part in anxiety, depression and trauma.

Within the limbic region are 2 key parts that you need to be aware of. The first is a pea-size thing (very technical term) called the amygdala. Its sole job is to make an assessment, which I’ll explain further soon. The other part is the hippocampus, which forms part of our memory systems. I’ll explain this soon too.

As an aside, when a child is abused at a young age, their amygdala becomes enlarged and is activated much more easily.

If you’re still holding your arm up, make a fist. Your fist is the limbic region of the brain.

Neocortex

The neocortex is the last part of the brain to develop. While it starts to grown when you’re young, it really kicks in when you hit your teenage years and doesn’t fully develop until around age 25 (which is why teenagers are so impulsive and don’t think things through. Their limbic regions are fully developed, enabling them to act on their emotions, but their thinking brain doesn’t yet have the capacity to keep up and balance it with the ability to reason things out).

The neocortex is commonly called the thinking brain. It’s responsible for exactly that. Thinking. Which includes reasoning and problem solving.

Going back to your arm, keep your fist clenched, and wrap your other hand over your fist. This hand is the neocortex.

Take a look at this first picture. Hope you like my super artistic ability! It shows the Triune Brain as I’ve described. Hope it makes sense with the colour coding.

triune brain 3

Let’s go back to caveman times for a second

I want you to take on the role of caveman for a moment. You’re coming out of your cave to do the hunter-gatherer thing. You’re too far out to get back inside quickly, and you suddenly notice a saber-toothed tiger sitting on a rock to your right. And this tiger is look at you like you are its next meal.

saber toothed tiger

What do you do?

Here is where the amygdala comes into play.

You see the tiger, you hear it, and you may feel vibrations under your feet, smell it and so on. Your brain takes in this information and sends it to the amygdala.

Your amygdala’s sole job is to answer 1 question – is this tiger a threat to my survival?

If the answer is yes, your stress response, or fight/fight response, is immediately activated:

  1. The amygdala sends a signal to the brain stem to say, ok, I need all of my resources available to get me out of this situation alive. Your brain releases adrenalin and cortisol (the 2 main stress hormones) to prepare you for either fight or flight. It increases your heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure to ready your body to respond.
  2. At the same time signals are sent to the neocortex (thinking centre) that says “I don’t need you right now, time to shut down”. Think about it. Will the tiger sit around waiting for you to think about things and decide which way to go in case it moves to the left 4 inches or closer to you? Let me tell you, it won’t wait. You need to be able to react immediately. If you take time to problem solve your life could very well be terminated! So, the blood flow to your thinking center gets shut down so you can immediately react.
  3. Additionally, you need to be aware that once the crisis has passed, if it happens again you need to be ready to act very quickly. So the memory device I mentioned earlier, called the hippocampus, lays down memories so that next time you see a tiger, the information is processed much quicker. The amygdala does its thing and the stress response is activated.

triune brain 4

We can come back to modern times now

So now we’ve explained the stress response, we need to understand that with the really quick advances we’ve had since our caveman times, we’re no longer confronted by saber-tooth tigers. Generally, our lives are rarely threatened. Evolution hasn’t kept up with those developments and unfortunately, the amygdala can’t tell the difference between tigers and finances.

Or any number of other things we have to deal with in our modern society. Families, kids, work responsibilities, traffic and so on.

And because our lives are so fast these days, it’s likely that our stress response is activated over and over again in very quick succession.

But here’s the thing. The stress response is there for a specific purpose. To keep us alive in a crisis. And after the crisis has passed it is supposed to ease. Blood flow is returned to those non-essential systems like our thinking brain. The stress hormones dissipate and leave the body (which is when you feel shaky and fall to bits). And at this point we are supposed to rest and recover and recoup our energy.

I hope all that makes sense. It’s a complex process and can be difficult to understand. We’ll leave things there for now and pick it up again tomorrow, when we’ll talk more about that pea size thing called the amygdala.

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