Project BrainHeart

Illustrated brain development research

Self-regulation and stress-response

“Resilient children are made, not born.”

Children are not resilient, they are adaptable. Faced with severe adversity they will develop ways to cope. However, the effects of adversity on their brain, emotional well-being and physical health may unfortunately be harmful.

The first thing the infant brain learns is to ‘regulate’, i.e. to respond appropriately to stressors, and to return to normal after the response has taken place. Only when the brain is calm does it explore and learn.

Where do we set the dial?

The brain’s vulnerability to stress depends on early experiences:

  1. Tolerance / habituation: if the brain is given regular, predictable, tolerable levels of a certain stimulus, the response to that particular stimulus becomes muted as novelty wears off. The brain frees its focus for other new stimuli.
    • Patterned, repetitive routines and a sense of control are soothing
  2. Sensitized: if the brain is given irregular, uncontrollable, overwhelming levels of a stimulus, it becomes increasingly sensitive to that particular stimulus.
    • Chaos and lack of control create anxiety. In the famous words of a family therapist, we would even “prefer the certainty of misery than the misery of uncertainty.”

How do we react to a system overload?

When a young brain receives an overwhelming level of stress, it has a range of possible adaptations to the perceived threat:

  1. Hyper-arousal: when you need to flee or fight, the brain prepares the body for action: heart rate picks up, focus and alertness increase. People feel aggressive and impulsive, acting reflexively and fast.
  2. Dissociation: when you can’t escape your dire fate, the brain prepares the body for injury: the heart rate slows, blood flow leaves the extremities, endogenous opioids are released. People freeze, and feel emotionless and numb.


The importance of relationships

“The stress-response system is closely interconnected with the systems that read and respond to human social cues.” That’s because for humans, other humans are simultaneously our biggest predators and only salvation.


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