Stress resilience

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This text is part of: "I would never send my kids to school" by Piotr Wozniak (2017)

Good stress and bad stress

While scientists speak of the damaging effects of stress on the brain, the concept of stress-free upbringing receives a great deal of scorn in social media. The confusion comes from the failure to differentiate between various forms of stress.

Kids who suffer from separation anxiety when dropped in daycare at the very young age provide an example of highly harmful stress. On the other hand, injuries suffered in the football field may be taken as a badge of honor, and an example of good stress that builds resilience. Bad stress will result in loss of brain cells, while good stress may, in theory, have the opposite effect.

Attachment parenting is often derided as "stress-free upbringing", while it should rather be seen as a good parenting that indeed helps prevent stress wherever it is harmful for health or brain development.

Global loss of IQ

Flynn effect says that there is a global increase in IQ from generation to generation. However, there is also a dark force in action that counteracts that positive trend. There is a global loss of brain cells and a global loss of creative power in developed societies. This loss is caused by bad sleep, stress, and depression. We have unleashed forces that keep destroying brains in modern society, and those forces seem to only increase in power from decade to decade. We can counteract those forces by using the tools of neuroscience. We need to start from shielding babies, toddlers, kids, and adolescents from brain-altering influences that shape their future life and leave them defenseless in face of adversity. The younger the child, the more important it is to take the right approach. Mishandling young brain leaves permanent imprints on personality and brain health that may be hard to correct in adulthood.

The very first step is the need to clear up the fog surrounding the myth that exposing kids to stress early will make them more stress resistant later in life. There is only a tiny grain of truth in that claim, which otherwise is seriously harmful.

Resistance to chronic stress

From the proponents of rigors of daycare and schooling, I hear it over and over again: "How will the kid cope as an adult?" "Will he tell the boss "I like to sleep long and work 2 hours only?".

Peter Gray put it mildly by saying "some people believe" in the supposed myth: "the very unpleasantness of school is good for children, so they will learn to tolerate unpleasantness as preparation for real life". Gray's soft claim probably comes from the fact that he comes from the culture where homeschooling is exploding. In Europe, the myth of "trainability of chronic stress resistance" in children is omnipresent.

The reasoning carries a vicious prescription: expose kids to stress to get them ready for adulthood! Alfie Kohn mocks it: Punch the kid today because someone might punch her in the future.

The myth of trainable resilience is not only the domain of the backward, ignorant, and uneducated. It originates from some research on rats in the 1950s. It permeates well-educated and open-minded families. Amazingly, I hear that even from high-IQ teachers. It all comes from a painful ignorance or misunderstanding of neuroscience. The pernicious myth of beneficial exposure to stress needs to be combated vigorously. It hurts kids around the world, all the time. The thinking goes like this: if muscle stress makes it stronger, if bone stress make it harder, if brain effort makes it smarter, then early waking makes the kid resistant to early waking stress, or maternal separation makes the kid resistant to adversities of life, etc.

The problem is that not all tissues and systems are trainable, and not all degrees of stress bring improvement. It is hard to break natural barriers in height or vision with training. You cannot exercise your teeth to crush diamond or adapt your brain to banging the head against the wall. Excess stress will tear muscles and break the bones. If resistance to chronic stress was trainable, we would have Romanian orphans taking leadership in NASA, or winning in Formula One. The younger the brain, the greater the possible negative impact of chronic stress.

Adaptation to stress

When a fighter is to face an opponent in the ring, his body activates a stress response. Fighting is stressful. Stress response helps to fight better. Having spent many hours in the ring, fighters understand risks and dangers better. They know how to avoid punches. Stress level in good fighters is reduced. This is knowledge-based adaptation to stress. With experience, fighters understand the game of fighting better. In boxing, top-level competitors may drive this knowledge-based adaptation to the point of actually enjoying the prospect of a risky encounter.

There are many ways we can adapt to stress using good practise, habits or procedures. For example, I advocate an approach in which the last 2-4 hours of the waking day are protected from stress. This is the time when the phone should be off and the employee should be protected from the employer (if his particular profession permits such an arrangement). This is the time when reading e-mail should be prohibited. This is the time when job-related investigations should be closed. Surfing on the net should be limited to unexciting or pleasurable areas of interest. Even then it may negatively affect the circadian cycle due to the exposure to blue light.

The stress that should be avoided in the evening, when experienced at mid-day, may have a beneficial impact on the mind and intellectual performance. We would call it eustress. When timed differently, e.g. before sleep, the stress response may be exaggerated, harmful, or interfere with good sleep. When good habits help avoid or cope with stress, I call it procedural adaptation to stress.

Locke and Rousseau have long understood that exposing a kid to a stress of "season, climates, elements" is a good thing. This is not adaptation to stress, it is physiological adaptation to environmental stressors. Winter swimming might be stressful, and exposure will result in knowledge-based and procedural adaptations. However, there is also a vital physiological component where physiological adaptation to cold exposure takes away the edge from the stressor.

Last but not least there is attenuation and learned helplessness. We can adapt to stress by making the brain stop responding to the stressor. Metaphorically speaking, we can damage and silence portions of the brain. Let's call it: adaptation via injury. This is what happens in animals deprived of freedom. This also happens in kids whose freedom is taken away by coercive schooling. At some point, coerced learning is no longer stressful. Children become numb and disinterested.

We are all aware of those coping mechanisms. This is why many parents easily fall victim to the belief that exposure to stress is a good preparation for adult life. We can easily get misled by inaccurate hints on authoritarian parenting. Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, accomplished the impossible with a seemingly authoritarian father. However, few people notice that this training had actually been guided by talents within. A seemingly strict father can actually capitalize on natural inner drives of kids who propel themselves to excellence with a degree of rigid guidance well-enclosed or approaching the optimum push zone. In a similar manner, Laszlo Polgar made his daughters spend inordinate hours over chess. He drove them to the top of the world in chess rankings. It is underestimated that kids must actually learn to love chess in the first place. Such a love and passion are the key to success.

Many a parent may be tempted to emulate Williams or Polgar accomplishments in total oblivion of the primary rule: kids should never be exposed to chronic stress. Their brains are too young. Their minds are too immature. They cannot effectively employ knowledge-based or procedural adaptation to stress. Instead, they will adapt via learned helplessness and their brain growth will be stunted.

There are benefits to eustress, and various forms of "stress" are part of a healthy training and development. However, there are no trainable defences against chronic stress, i.e. the one you get with perpetual sleep deprivation, bullying, maternal separation, child abuse, etc. Those are stresses that change the metabolism, and change the wiring of the brain. They correlate well with an increase in mental disease, behavioral disorders, addictions, etc. Chronic stress is the type of stress you go to sleep with. Characterically, this is the stress that does not go away on waking. Its chronic nature is best expressed by the fact that there is no "rise and shine". Chronically stressed kid wakes up with a worry. Chronic stress can persist and gnaw at you for days or weeks. Attenuation can be used to reduce the impact of inevitable stress. Professional training helps stress management in stressful jobs. However, the purpose of those is the prevention of chronic stress, procedural adaptation, or knowledge-based adaptation. Professional training does not provide biological resistance to the effects of chronic stress.

Preparation for adulthood

Stress resilience training

Older psychologists and educators have often been biased by years of analysis of institutionalized children. As a result, they may perpetuate the myth born in the 1950s: "sour faces in kids are ok because duty and discipline are educational"! They believe that a well-organized kindergarten group is better than a rowdy sports field crowd of mixed-aged peers. That thinking is directed at preparing the kids to live in the modern adult world.

The opposite is true. Freedom is a better way to shape a better future character. We teach kids to tolerate the reality, while they should rather let their reason figure out what is tolerable and what is welcome in proportion to brain development. Why tolerate toilet, sleep, meal, or sport timing restrictions in violation of the circadian cycle? Why tolerate departures from the natural creativity cycle? It is smarter to be intolerant and learn to adapt in proportion to brain power and one's own intolerance! Let's adapt the world to humans, not the other way around. Children can be a great factor of change in that respect.

Youth should be devoted to brain development. There is no stronger weapon than a well-developed brain. Learning and "preparation" come easy to a brisk brain. They can proceed in proportion to maturity. They can capitalize on the learn drive with minimal assistance from optimum push.

Discipline training

Preparation for adulthood is not only about stress resilience. Many educators claim that kids who suffer no discipline won't be able to adapt to a job that requires a submission. This is false. All animals follow an instinctive drive for freedom. This drive has evolutionary benefits. Captured deer will struggle to the point of injury. Restrained puppy will yelp for freedom of space. Human mind that grows free from shackles will retain the quest for open spaces and freedom till the very end of life. For a healthy brain, there is very little difficulty in achieving self-restraint and self-discipline through reason. Limits on freedom in childhood may generate stress that may limit brain development that, later in life, paradoxically, will make it harder to impose self-discipline. On the other side of the equation, freedom fosters creativity, which is an equally priced possession. You do not need to be an employer to know that it is far easier for a creative individual to self-impose restraint than for a well-disciplined soldier to become creative on demand. Preparation for adulthood needs to take into account the immaturity of the brain. Taking on a hard 9-5 job may be easy for a high-IQ thirty-year-old. The same job may be highly stressful for a teen, bad for health for a 10-year-old, or a plain brain destroyer for a 5-year-old. We should celebrate the fact that we no longer need to send 8 year olds to handle a factory assembly line to earn a living.

Homeschooler's sleep

Homeschoolers often boast that what they like most about learning at home is that they can get good sleep. The right to get good sleep should be a basic human right for children. Some professions involve inevitable sleep deprivation or interference with chronobiology. However, adaptations to "messy sleep" lifestyle are predominantly procedural, not biological. Going to sleep early, and sticking to regular sleep hours are both procedural adaptations. The only significant biological adaptation is the possibility of determining the sleep phase via chronotherapy. In the course of 2-3 weeks, an owl can be made into an early bird with the tools of chronobiology. This is again procedural adaptation that capitalizes on a single property of the sleep control system: sleep phase. This is not a biological adaptation that helps reduce the effects of sleep deprivation once it occurs.

Torturing kids with an alarm clock to train school discipline is as bad as feeding them with alcohol. Both affect brain structures and permanently change lives. The only difference is that alarm clocks are still socially acceptable.

For contrast, imagine giving a child a 50ml glass of vodka in the morning. In terms of ravages to the brain and personality, this might be an alcohol equivalent of waking the kid up 2 hours before his or her optimum waking time (which might be the case for half the kids). Biologically speaking, the body can mount a degree of resistance to alcohol by streamlining the enzymatic engine needed to metabolise ethanol. In an extreme case, there might be no damage from alcohol. There are virtually no defenses against neural effects of sleep deprivation. Once you incur deprivation, you certainly incur damage.

We should never train kids to resist stress of sleep deprivation by exposure. Trainability and adaptability are minimal. Damage is real, serious and long-lasting. Sleep deprivation in kids is one of the prime forces counteracting the global increase in intelligence.

See also: How to reduce the impact of stress on sleep

Optimum stress exposure

Stress can be acute, i.e. sudden. It can also be chronic, i.e. long lasting. It is the chronic stress than does most of the damage.

The formula for optimum stress exposure in development is pretty simple. Kids should never be exposed to chronic stress. Eustress is welcome, esp. as a motivator. Acute stress can be employed only when there are demonstrable effects of known benefits. The underlying idea is that chronic stress is a brain destroyer. Via hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, chronic stress leads to restrictions on neurogenesis, brain growth and development. Even though stress can improve learning, the benefits are short-term, and long-term outcomes are negative.

The approach of stress shielding should be extended beyond puberty or perhaps even further. Not only is the brain still developing fast, at puberty, hormonal hurricanes blow through the young body. Stress in childhood and in adolescence is associated with changes in the brain structure and the development of mental disorders later in life.

Only fully formed brain is equipped with tools for declarative and procedural training that may help one cope with stress. By procedural training, I mean rational choice of procedures that help cope with stress as opposed to natural neurohormonal responses to chronic stress that are always detrimental. An example of stress-combating procedure is the skill to compress stressful stimuli into selected windows in the natural creativity cycle, e.g. to precede or coincide with exercise, while protecting sensitive windows in the cycle, e.g. creativity windows, or the time before sleep when all stressors should be avoided, if possible, for the sake of uninterrupted well-timed healthy sleep. An adult can easily organize his day and employ such a circadian procedure to minimize the negative effects of stress. A child may find it difficult. Moreover, all exposure to stress affects brain development. In case of chronic stress, that effect is invariably negative.

Major stressors may be unavoidable. Death of a parent is one of the worst stressors a child can face. This may be a matter of chance. However, most parents in modern world expose kids to chronic stress that can be avoided. Daycare is a prime example. Early weaning is another. Separating a child from her mom for the night, or waking kids early are also frequently exercised.

In addition to negative impact of stress hormones on the brain, there is a problem of epigenetic control of brain growth in response to environmental stressors. In short, the brain uses genetic machinery to get ready for the evil and dangerous world as reflected by child's environment or her perception thereof. A child raised in an unquestionably loving atmosphere is likely to develop all the neural weaponry needed to deal with stress on declarative and procedural platforms. On the other hand, child exposed to a major trauma or chronic stress will develop a brain with a different neurohormonal profile that is more likely to enhance neurotic aspects of his personality, increase chances of depression, reduce cortisol receptors in the hypothalamus and the hippocampus, remove CRH and ACTH release breaks, provide for the cortisol-oriented dominance of the HPA axis (hyperactive stress system), stunt neurogenesis, affect synaptic pruning, lower hippocampal volume, result in weaker hippocampal control, and so on.

The formula for genius is parental love. Exposure to trauma and chronic stress are harmful to brain growth.

The inevitable exposure to significant stress should be phased in gradually in adulthood when the brain is fully formed.

Paradoxically, mixing up stress with love and shelter may be dangerous as well. The kid exposed to the stress of bullying may deepen the injury by ruminating his predicament in the confines of a loving home. This is why parents should also learn about the art of stress inoculation, which has nothing to do with chronic stress.

Stress resilience

If optimum stress exposure implies avoiding chronic stress in childhood, how come some behavioral research in animals indicate that stress may improve resilience? For example, intermittent maternal separation may lead to more independent and emotionally sturdy animals? See: Stress inoculation may improve resilience later in life

The emphasis must then again go on the "chronic" aspect of chronic stress. Some forms of stress are good. They help learning. Locke and Rousseau spoke of hardening. Psychology literature uses terms such as inoculating or toughening. In many circumstances stress is good for learning, development, and mental health. It can indeed lead to improved stress resilience.

Maternal separation has negative connotations, but we do not aim at making kids dependent on their mom until teen years. Separation is actually a goal of upbringing. In other words, it needs to proceed. It only needs to proceed incrementally and with respect to biological rhythms. The younger the kid, the greater the effect of separation. It should be avoided at times of sleep, or at nursing (before weaning). It should be avoided at times of crisis, incl. daily circadian drop in stress resilience, e.g. before sleep. Other than that, separation and exposure to acute stress can do wonders to healthy development, incl. emotional development. The best formula for incremental separation: let the kid decide!

Is it then a good idea to throw a kid out of a boat in the middle of a lake to teach him how to swim?

I keep emphasizing the role of love in family and the need to protect kids from chronic stress. Should this not then be an outrageous and cruel idea?

It actually depends on circumstances. In principle, this is not how effective swimming lessons should be delivered. However, there are many variables that will determine the outcome:

  • Child's interpretation: the best primary indicator is the child's reaction to the event. Is it horror, or perhaps elation? This component is strongly related to personality, disposition, and context
  • Child's age: right after birth, kids are pretty well adapted to diving and even surviving on the surface of water on their back. Throwing an untrained adult out of a boat is far less likely to bring anything good. Trying to teach a 50-year-old to swim is close to mission impossible. There are critical period windows in brain growth where stressful stimuli produce different programming effects on brain development, esp. in early childhood
  • Circadian frame: a child woken up prematurely in the early morning and thrown into cold water may experience true horror. The same kid at its circadian prime may cope pretty well, and in extreme cases, enjoy the experience
  • Sense of safety: it is important who does the throwing. It is a securely attached caregiver (e.g. a loving parent)? Or is it an oppressor (e.g. hated step parent)?

You may wonder why I picked this scary example with a boat. For ethical reasons, scientists would find it hard to execute similar experiments with monkeys, let alone children. We may never get a good scientific verdict on the procedure. However, it so happens that I know two brothers who have been trained using the said method (aged 19 and 13 in 2016). Both brothers are a picture of physical and mental health. Both do ok at school. Both are good swimmers. However, the older brother carries scars of his early training. When I asked him to swim across the pool under water, he hesitated. He admitted that longer periods without breathing under water bring back the horrifying memories from childhood. The younger brother does not have such issues. He actually does not even remember the shock training. Perhaps the variables listed in my analysis above played differently for him. The entire story is based on older brother's recollections. I was not able to take another angle from their radical father. Later in life, he turned to alcohol, abandoned his family, and moved to Germany. I would not be surprised if alcohol played a role in his choice of swimming lesson methodology.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
Why am I not outraged at this parental attitude? The reason is that my first swimming lessons were in a very similar category. My brother, 16 years senior, was a great early coach and teacher. He would toss me off a 3-5 meter guard tower to deep water in a lake. I was 6 years old and I could not swim. However, the distance I needed to make was just 2-4 meters to the pier. The best part of the experience was the crowd of spectators who cheered a tiny guy taking a plunge from a height. I was a little showoff and for show I was ready to risk my life. If we review the list of factors affecting the outcome of the experience, I seem to have met all conditions for making it fun, positive and effective. I loved the crowd and cheers. I was not too old to be anxious. It was a middle of a hot day, and I trusted my brother as no one else in the world. It was great. After this radical start, I gradually improved my swimming skills to cross many scary lakes and rivers before my teens. Interestingly, later in life, I became more risk averse and lost some of my resilience, mostly through neglect. Last but not least, I was powerfully impacted by the movie "The Jaws". By the time I was 17 years old, swimming across a lake or out into sea would always bring back some scenes from the movie.

Peter Gray advocates trustful parenting. In the present world, it seems awfully hard, but without a degree of risk and hardening, we won't raise a generation of conquerors, astronauts, CEOs or perhaps even Einsteins.

John Taylor Gatto is even more radical. He claims that Richard Branson's mother inspired him with the best formula for raising genius. When Branson was four, his mom, with his nod, dropped him off miles from home to find his way back on his own. Branson needed 8 hours. He succeeded and later claimed it was one of the best lessons he got in life. Nothing seemed like an impossible challenge any more.

Personal anecdote. Why use anecdotes?
When I was 12, in summer 1974, my mom agreed I took a bike trip on old Polish communist roads to a city 150 km away (and later back). Today, I recall with horror huge fully-loaded trucks wheezing by. However, this kind of trip indeed leaves some strong imprint on a young mind. I took my best friend Piotr Ruta with me. On arrival to our destination, we slept in a haystack. On the way back, in the night, without lights, we were forced to sleep in a field of wheat in rain because we took a truck on the side of the road for a police car. We got soaked and chilled to the bone. The best part of the trip was the appreciation for the warmth of home and even for a decent meal. However, this trip did not do much to our genius. I was expelled from school a few months later for bad behavior. Ruta did not even bother to go to high school. He got a job in a nearby bakery where he stayed until a day when a tram car accident resulted in amputation of his foot in his early 20s. Perhaps, to benefit better, we should have taken the trip at the age of four?

When tiny babies are thrown into an icehole in Ukraine, the reaction of a western mom is nearly universal: horror. As babies are pretty poor at "planning ahead", anticipatory chronic stress is not a factor. Therefore, the ultimate litmus test is the baby's response. If temporary shock is promptly replaced with a wide smile or euphoria, this type of acute stress exposure is likely to do a lot of good, in terms of overall health, brain health, and resilience.

In summary, we should surround kids with love, shelter them from chronic stress, and keep the mind open when it comes to acute stress and beneficial stress inoculation. On the other hand, childhood without exposure to risk and acute stress is less likely to lead to resilience later in life.

Summary: Stress resilience

  • youth should be devoted to brain development
  • in development, we need to differentiate between chronic long-lasting stress and acute short-lasting stress
  • not all forms of stress are bad. In brain development, we need to focus on avoiding chronic stress
  • chronic stress is a brain destroyer
  • maternal separation can lead to chronic stress
  • early weaning, toilet training, and other forms of physiological acceleration may result in chronic stress
  • some forms of acute stress may help build stress resilience
  • eustress is good stress that can act as an energizer and motivator
  • attachment parenting does not imply stress-free upbringing
  • chronic stress and depression are costly factors counteracting global increase in IQ
  • adaptations to stress may be knowledge-based, or procedural
  • stress of schooling is counteracted by learned helplessness. It can be views as "adaptation by injury"
  • we should never train kids to adapt to chronic stress. Resistance via adaptation to chronic stress in kids is negligible
  • chronic stress resistance training is harmful. Instead of preparing for adulthood, exposure to chronic stress may seriously affect brain development
  • one of the greatest benefits of homeschooling or unschooling is free sleep
  • for young brains, sleep deprivation may be worse than alcohol
  • adherence to the natural creativity cycle is helpful in reducing chronic stress
  • warm household is precious in reducing chronic stress
  • trustful parenting helps built stress resilience
  • John Taylor Gatto believes that stress inoculation is one of the best gifts a parent can give to a child
  • age, personality, circadian phase, and context can turn a stressful event into a hardening event or a case for exultation