Stress is a power word. It is so descriptive. It is onomatopoeia personified. It mouths its meaning. The word stress is like howl or snarl or scream. Just the sound makes the blood pressure kick up or a heart race. It is not only the bark of stress but the bite that affects every cell of the body.
Biological stress is the survival response against perceived threats. However, being always at battle stations or continuously on red alert erodes the internal wires and frays the nerves. Combat fatigue is not isolated to soldiers shooting. Therefore, to live and not just survive, the body needs homeostasis or balance. What emotionally goes up must emotionally come down, and what is emotionally down must emotionally come up.
If there is frequent, unpredicted, intense stress the organism falters. That is why play is serious work that lowers the internal tension. Fun, dreams, friends and calm also counterbalance stress. For the body, life is a delicate equilibrium of forces. It is the presence of pressure and its discharge. Feeling good is tension-release. It is: "Why do we hit our heads on the wall ... because it feels so good when we stop."
Roller coasters and scary movies provide the same high physical tension, then let it go when the ride ends or the show is over. Sexual pleasure is excitation, then release; soothing a crying child is similar. In fact in the relationship with an infant, the mother, if she does it right, sculptures the immature nervous system of the newborn to become regulated to this up and down, stimulation and calming. The sympathetic nervous system is kept in check and counterweighted by the down regulation of the parasympathetic autonomic nervous system.
This developing yin and yang of the brain is the principle reason why babies are born. Well, that and they have run out of space and the mother is about to pop. But other than that, fetuses are physically completely built in 40 weeks minus a few. The closer the gestational burden gets to term, the more the fetus needs to be looking at its mother, not the inside of the uterus. Only outside of the womb can the newborn learn the stimulation of environmental stress and the soothing of the mother.
It is this critical synapse-building time, when the infant is held captive by the imposed immobility of immaturity, that the mother intimately responds to the babe; and looking and sharing feelings with the child teaches stress management. When the tension of hunger, cold, fatigue, fear and pain goes up, the mother instructs with her presence and sensitivity that there is an end to the stress. By correctly reading the signals, then acting, the mother ends the hunger, warms against the chill, rocks the fatigue to sleep, cuddles the fears and soothes the pain. She creates for the evolving brain the neural pathways to future and forever calming.
Therefore, stress is beneficial to the human race only when there is a release. Hunger without satiety is starvation; cold lacking blankets is frostbite; sleeplessness void of rest is delirium; fear unstopping is panic; and pain without end is torture. It then is the job of every mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, caretaker and nursery school teacher to help the young regulate their internal alarm systems. Learning how to calm is taught. Parents mold the brain. Mothers craft the neurons dedicated to the development of the unconscious stress-regulating network.
It is the action and reaction of mother and child to the vicissitudes of early life that directs the child to internal peace. The mother is the master; the child is the student. Face-to-face teaching is how the new human assimilates life experiences from the mother. When the mother smiles, she is transmitting her accumulated joys to her baby. It is this external calming that exports internally to the right brain of the baby.
Just like a child who learns to walk will be upright and biped for the next 75 years, a child who learns to calm will carry that imported skill of security for the rest of its life.
Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for more than 25 years and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at [email protected].