A definition of stress
In the world of EFT/Tapping/Matrix Reimprinting (MR), we often refer to stress as something we are combating and fighting against. We are tapping on stress to release it, as it is something that is obviously not healthy for us to experience frequently. It is often a generically used term and it is time that we become more granular or specific in the ways we use this term. This would be to more effectively engage with this amorphous, often all-encompassing perceived scourge on our individual and collective psyche and physiology.
Individual relationship to stress
We each have our own individual relationship to stress. And we each have our own understanding and perspective regarding what it means and what it feels like. This is sometimes referred to as an emotional state. It is also defined as a condition that can be calculated via objective measurements, such as salivary cortisol levels or brain wave EEGs. With both of these there are growing studies showing EFT tapping to be able to effect in positive ways. What I find most fascinating, however, is the origin of our stress patterns. Put simply, how our stress responses get hardwired into our systems during our childhood; programmed for a lifetime of responses to our life circumstances.
Stress responses in young children
Recently I have been working on attaining a professional certification in Trauma and Resilience through Florida State University. I was excited to find a piece of literature published by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child (1) by the American Academy of Pediatrics. I decided to summarize their proposed conceptual model regarding 3 distinct types of stress responses (not the actual stressors themselves) that occur in young children. These distinct categories are based upon their potential to have long-lasting physiological sequelae dependent upon the intensity and duration of the response to the circumstances.
The 3 proposed Stress Responses are:
By understanding the distinctions between these three responses, we can greater understand how to use interventions like EFT/MR more effectively. It can also help us to be more compassionate with ourselves and our clients. People often encounter difficulties when trying to “let go of the past”. It is good to change a strongly fixed pattern or thought, behavior or physical response to a wide variety of stressful situations.
Positive stress response
A positive stress response refers to a physiologic state that is brief and mild to moderate in magnitude. Central to the notion of positive stress is the availability of a caring and responsive adult who helps the child cope with the stressor. We can thereby provide a protective effect that facilitates the return of the stress response systems back to baseline status. (1)
This kind of response to mildly adverse circumstances offers us growth opportunities. These enable us to discover our inner strengths, courage, resilience, determination, and the knowing that we can overcome challenges. It might include how a child is supported in getting back up after falling. Or the ability to lose a competitive event and still move forwards despite the personal disappointment. There is a key element here that is a primary determiner of how such an experience is categorized as such. This is the support through the “availability of a caring and responsive adult who helps the child cope with the stressor.”
Tolerable stress response
A tolerable stress response is associated with exposure to non-normative experiences that present a greater magnitude of adversity or threat. Precipitants may include the death of a family member, a serious illness or injury, a contentious divorce, a natural disaster, or an act of terrorism. This can be experienced in the context of buffering protection provided by supportive adults. There is a risk that such circumstances will produce excessive activation of the stress response systems. These can lead to physiologic harm and long-term consequences for health and learning, but here the risk is greatly reduced. (1)
These kinds of events we in the tapping world categorize as Big T type traumas. What makes one individual who experiences such events sufficiently resilient to be able to move on from such a trauma without significantly life diminishing consequences? Again, the answer comes in the form of supportive and protective adult relationships that foster and facilitate the child’s adaptive coping and a sense of control. On an emotional and physiological level, this relationship reduces the child’s physiologic stress response, which greater enables the child’s body to return to a normative baseline status.
Toxic stress response
A toxic stress response is the mechanism that is the one that is the most far-reaching, long-lasting and dangerous. Toxic stress can result from strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response systems in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship.(1) This is where we often see individuals with high ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) scores. Especially when the absence or neglect of parents occur over extended periods of time and repetition. For example, caregivers who are struggling with addictions/substance abuse, mental health struggles, absence due to incarceration and separation/divorce.
Disruptive interpersonal relationships that often include a wide variety of lesser (Little T) or greater (big T traumas) are not repaired by a supportive adult, for any number of reasons. An altered “wiring” can result in the neuroceptive (subconscious safety determining mechanism) and brain/body response to what is or is not dangerous. If it is dangerous, it can in turn be stressful to the individual’s system.
Is categorization of stress responses helpful?
So, how can this categorization of stress responses help our understanding, for those of us using EFT/MR with ourselves and our clients? Perhaps the most important piece that we need to understand is the prioritization of the importance of protective, supportive and nurturing adult relationships. That aspect is even more relevant than the exposure to the adversity and traumatic events themselves.
The long-lasting effects of toxic stress are not limited to the events we experienced as a child. They can become compounded by the survival based adaptive lenses we create that we then see the world through as adults. The brilliant physician, Gabor Mate said:
The greatest damage done by neglect, trauma or emotional loss is not the immediate pain they inflict but the long-term distortions they induce in the way a developing child will continue to interpret the world and her situation in it. All too often these ill-conditioned implicit beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies in our lives. We create meanings from our unconscious interpretation of early events, and then we forge our present experiences from the meaning we’ve created. Unwittingly, we write the story of our future from narratives based on the past…”(2)
So what do we do?
- We work to heal OUR OWN stress responses. Sometimes, this is personal work we can do on ourselves, i.e. with tapping as a fabulous and effective tool. Other times, in order to do this we need to the help of skilful and trained practitioners. This is especially important with having a toxic stress response.
- We work with our clients to help them to heal their past. Of course, taking into consideration the extent of professional experience and scope of practice limitations.
- We intend that our work affects parents/caregivers. They in turn become more trauma informed and understand the pervasive effects of toxic stress. They can then begin to alter the environments in which children’s developing nervous systems are moulded.
- We advocate and educate our communities, our schools, our legislators to better understand this “ecobiodevelopmental framework”. (1)
My inspiration finally is drawn from this research paper. This represents the U.S. Academy of Pediatrics. They advocate for the field to move beyond just identifying risk factors of adversity. Also to refine “new and more effective strategies for reducing toxic stress and mitigating its effects as early as possible, before irrevocable damage is done.” (1)
A call to action
I think you know what my suggestion would be. So please, if you use tapping with children, PLEASE share this work with your pediatricians, NOW is the time.
The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress, Jack P. Shonkoff, Andrew S. Garner, THE COMMITTEE ON PSYCHOSOCIAL ASPECTS OF CHILD AND FAMILY HEALTH, COMMITTEE ON EARLY CHILDHOOD, ADOPTION, AND DEPENDENT CARE, AND SECTION ON DEVELOPMENTAL AND BEHAVIORAL PEDIATRICS, Benjamin S. Siegel, Mary I. Dobbins, Marian F. Earls, Andrew S. Garner, Laura McGuinn, John Pascoe and David L. Wood. Pediatrics January 2012, 129 (1) e232-e246; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2011-2663
Maté, Gabor, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, Random House, 2010.
Craig is an Accredited Certified Master Trainer of Trainers, Practitioner and Mentor.