Positive, Tolerable and Toxic Stress Responses; What are the Differences?
In the world of EFT/Tapping/Matrix Reimprinting (MR), we often refer to stress as something we are combating and fighting against, that we are tapping on to release 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 to more effectively engage with this amorphous, often all-encompassing perceived scourge on our individual and collective psyche and physiology.
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. It is sometimes referred to as an emotional state, or a condition that can be calculated via objective measurements such as salivary cortisol levels or brain wave EEGs. (Both of which 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.
Recently I have been working on attaining a professional certification in Trauma and Resilience through Florida State University and 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:
- Positive Stress
- Tolerable Stress
- Toxic Stress
I believe that by understanding the distinctions between these three responses, it can help us not only 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 for the difficulty that is often encountered when trying to “let go of the past” and to change a strongly fixed pattern or thought, behavior or physical response to a wide variety of stressful situations.
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, thereby providing 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 to enable us to discover our inner strengths, courage, resilience, determination and the knowing that we can overcome challenges. This 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. The key element here that is a primary determiner of how such an experience is categorized as such is the support through the “availability of a caring and responsive adult who helps the child cope with the stressor.”
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. When experienced in the context of buffering protection provided by supportive adults, the risk that such circumstances will produce excessive activation of the stress response systems that leads to physiologic harm and long-term consequences for health and learning is greatly reduced. (1) These kinds of events are 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 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.
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, i.e. caregivers who are struggling with addictions/substance abuse, mental health struggles, absence due to incarceration and separation/divorce. What is important to understand here is that that 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. This is believed to result in an altered “wiring” of the neuroceptive (subconscious safety determining mechanism) and brain/body response to what is or is not dangerous and in turn stressful to the individual’s system.
So how can this categorization of stress responses help our understanding, for those of us using EFT/MR with ourselves and our clients? I believe the most important piece that we need to understand is the prioritization of the importance of protective, supportive and nurturing adult relationships. That aspect being 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 but 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 skillful 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 who in turn become more trauma informed and understand the pervasive effects of toxic stress and can begin to alter the environments in which children’s developing nervous systems are molded.
- 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 who represents the U.S. Academy of Pediatrics who advocate for the field to move beyond just identifying risk factors of adversity refine “new and more effective strategies for reducing toxic stress and mitigating its effects as early as possible, before irrevocable damage is done.” (1) 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 author, Craig Weiner, DC, is lecturer, writer, mentor, co-creator of Tapping out of Trauma continuing education training, the Director of the EFT Tapping Training Institute and master trainer of trainers for EFT International and trainer for the EFT Matrix Reimprinting Academy. His commitment is to promote the application of trauma informed knowledge and interventions to heal the effects of trauma on an individual and planetary level.
- 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.