Appreciating Healthy Stress

Little african american girl and her parents with psychologist, kid sharing her feelings

While focusing on the many dimensions and manifestations of trauma, it is important to pause and recognize that not all stress is toxic, unhealthy and the cause of trauma. Most often though trauma does involve excessive amounts of toxic stress that wounds a person’s mind and brain, leaving scars that continue to cause ongoing issues. But certain amounts and types of stress are potentially healthy and even essential for good mind and brain development.

In the August 10, 2019 article from Science Daily the author noted that, “People generally think of stress and anxiety as negative concepts, but while both stress and anxiety can reach unhealthy levels, psychologists have long known that both are unavoidable — and that they often play a helpful, not harmful, role in our daily lives.”

The author shares further that, “… stress is a given in daily life, that working at the edge of our abilities often builds those capacities and that moderate levels of stress can have an inoculating function, which leads to higher than average resilience when we are faced with new difficulties.” It seems certain amounts of stress actually can increase our resilience and the resilience of our children. It can be a balancing principle when we consider what happens when stress is toxic and overwhelming, the hallmarks of trauma.

Parents talking with son on bench in park, supporting teen in time of trouble

Part of what can determine if stress is of the healthier kind or is more toxic and potentially traumatizing involves the degrees to which the person experiencing that stress also knows they are safe, cared for, appreciated. They also need to have within them the capacity to manage the stress, possibly learn from it and bounce back. In those moments where something that is happening could go either into a trauma experience or one that promotes a sense of power to manage, control, survive, and find strategies to overcome the stress, there are opportunities to influence which direction the situation goes.

Loving  black mother hugs cute daughter to feel connection and safety.

When our children face some of the normal stresses of life or even those that are extreme and unfair, giving them messages to understand that they are safe is crucial. They need to know that they are not alone and that we will walk beside them. They need clarity that we will not let anyone treat them unfairly or cruelly, and that we will help them find their inner strength and capacity to learn from their experiences and emerge stronger and more confident. Those are the stresses that can actually become resilience-builders.

The key to all this is the level of communication that goes on between adult and child. We need to listen carefully and compassionately, appreciate and accept their thoughts and feelings without judging or criticizing. We also need to give the child time and space to appreciate that something is not fair or healthy and that they can, with the help and guidance of the adults around them, find ways to deal with the adversity. Sometimes it involves finding ways to get away from it and sometimes ways to confront and deal with it. Often it involves gaining support from more than one other advocate. The less alone a child feels, the less likely that any adverse, stressful and potentially traumatizing experience or situation will become a deep and serious emotional wound.

Invitation for Reflections:

  1. Do you know a child who experienced stress that might be promoting resilience in them versus causing them deep emotional and potentially traumatizing wounding? What was contributing to either the resilience or the potential for that kind of wounding?
  2. In those moments, what might a child need to hear from the adults supporting them that could promote greater self-confidence, allowing them to manage a stressful situation?
  3. How might adults need to give them the insights and confidence to move forward as they nurture this in a child?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute