Beware the Firehouse Effect on the Brain

This post is a bit technical; however, it also provides what I think is a clarifying explanation of the power and impact of stress on the human brain, and is especially important when thinking about children’s developing brains.

Because children’s brains are especially vulnerable to allostasis

diane sitting on steps with three kidsAs those who are influencing children, we need to take very seriously the power of stress to impact normal development, how it may cause behavioral problems and all kinds of other health issues for a child’s future life.

I like providing some of this deeper, more technical, neuroscientific information because it has the power to legitimize theoretical concepts. Parents can use this substantive information not only to influence their behaviors but also, when needed, to provide them with the ammunition if and when their parenting practices are criticized as being “too soft.”

Once again, I bring information to you from Paul Tough’s excellent book, How Children Succeed. He calls the information “the firehouse effect.”

“Our bodies regulate stress using a system called the HPA axis. HPA stands for ‘hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal,’ and that tongue-twisting phrase describes the way that chemical signals cascade through the brain and the body in reaction to intense situations when potential danger appears.

“The first line of defense is the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that processes biological things like body temperature, hunger and thirst. The hypothalamus emits a chemical that triggers receptors in the pituitary gland; the pituitary releases signaling hormones that stimulate the adrenal glands; and the adrenal glands then send out stress hormones called glucocorticoids that switch on a host of specific defense responses.

“Some of these responses we can recognize in ourselves as they happen: emotions like fear and anxiety, and physical reactions like increased heart rate, clammy skin, and a dry mouth. But many effects of the HPA axis are less immediately apparent to us, even when we are the ones experiencing them: neurotransmitters activate, glucose levels rise, the cardiovascular system sends blood to the muscles, and inflammatory proteins surge through the bloodstream…

“Most of our stress today comes from mental processes, from worrying about things. The HPA axis is not designed to handle that kind of stress…

A photo of the book "How Children Succeed" by Paul Tough“Overloading the HPA axis, especially in infancy and childhood, produces all kinds of serious and long-lasting negative effects: physiological, psychological, and neurological. The tricky thing about this process, though, is that it’s not actually the stress itself that messes us up. It’s the body’s reaction to the stress.…

“According to Bruce McEwen, the process of managing stress, which he labeled “allostasis”, is what creates wear and tear on the body. If the body’s stress-management systems are overworked they eventually break down under the strain. McEwen called this gradual process “allostatic load”, and he says that you can observe its destructive effects throughout the body. [Things like raised blood pressure.]

“Think of the HPA axis as a super deluxe firehouse with a fleet of fancy, high-tech trucks, each with its own set of highly specialized tools and even its own team of expertly trained firefighters. When the alarm bell rings, the firefighters don’t take the time to analyze exactly what the problem is or figure out which truck may be most appropriate.

“Instead, all of the trucks rush off to the fire together at top speed, sirens blaring. Like the HPA axis, they simply respond quickly with every tool they might need. This may be the right strategy for saving lives and fires, but it can also result in a dozen trucks pulling up to put out a single smoldering trash can— or worse, responding to a false alarm.”

Need to mitigate toxic stress

Hopefully this image of the brain’s HPA system functioning, much like the response firefighters make when the alarm bell rings, amplifies the importance of appreciating how toxic stress can do serious short-term and long-term damage. Finding ways to mitigate toxic stress in our children’s lives is an essential, critical component of healthy parenting.

Of course, parents also have their own HPA system and need to pay attention to toxic stress in their lives in order not to overtax that system.

Reducing stress and managing stress are not just warm and fuzzy ideas. They are essential for building and maintaining healthy internal brain processes.

I hope learning this makes you feel empowered.

The idea of learning neuroscience can be intimidating, however many authors, like Paul Tough, provide opportunities for us to make sense of some very complex information.

Invitation for Reflection

1. To what degree does this information give you a way to understand how the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands work together whenever stress occurs when there is perceived danger or pressure? How clear are you about this brain functioning in terms of the potential negative impact it can have on a child’s growing brain?
2. In what ways does this information inspire you to be more intentional about reducing toxic stress in your children’s lives?
3. What are some specific things you can do to reduce their allostatic load—and your own?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Lakeside Global Institute, Lakeside