Tag Archives: stress

Health effects of traumatic stress on infants

In Rwanda we hear that children born after the genocide exhibit signs of trauma–even though they did not experience it firsthand. You could hypothesize a number of reasons for this:

  • Hearing of the stories of lost loved ones; being told that their neighbors were killers
  • Having peers in school stigmatize: “You are Hutu, you are a killer. You are Tutsi, you are a cockroach.”
  • Seeing pictures of genocide

Notice that all three have to do with the child’s internalization of trauma through their environment.

But what if their trauma began in utero and biologically altered their capacity to handle stress? Consider these words by Maggie Schauer (available to be seen in context here),

Exposure to significant stressors during sensitive developmental periods causes the brain to develop along a stress-responsive pathway. The brain and mind become organized in a way to facilitate survival in a world of deprivation and danger, enhancing an individual’s capacity to rapidly and dramatically shift into an intense, angry, aggressive, fearful, or avoiding state when threatened. This pathway is costly and non-adaptive in peaceful environments. Babies born with a deformed stress-regulating system (HPA-a) experience higher and faster arousal peaks, longer intervals of crying and irritability, and impaired affect regulation (Sondergaard et al., 2003). (p. 398, emphasis mine)¹

How might this information help us better understand how “the sins of the fathers” (or whoever is the abusive individuals or communities) extend beyond primary victims to those victim’s children? How might this help us train survivors to understand what might be happening in their children and support parenting strategies that will encourage healing. Might it also help survivors to feel less guilty for the struggles of their children? Survivors don’t ask to be abused and can’t help the impact on their children while in utero.

Now, not every child with a “deformed stress regulating system” is that way due to the mother’s stress. We just don’t know why one child has a good stress regulation system and why another does not. But we can say that those whose stress regulation seems broken (or different) likely need different parenting strategies and a different paradigm in understanding volition (will) when it comes to their outbursts.

 ¹ Schauer, M., & Schauer, E. (2010). Trauma-focused public mental-health interventions: A paradigm shift in humanitarian assistance and aid work. In E. Martz (ed.) Trauma Rehabilitation after War and Conflict (pp. 389-428). Springer

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Filed under counseling, counseling science, Psychology, Uncategorized

Book Note: Linkages between stress, inflammation, and mental illness

I am in the process of clearing my desk of semester debris. Well, truth be told, I am in the process of clearing a portion of my desk from said debris. The rest will have to wait. In the process, I came across a book I’ve been meaning to read since the dept. purchased it for me: The Psychoneuroimmunology of Chronic Disease: Exploring the Links Between Inflammation, Stress, and Illness (APA, 2010).

Before you all stop reading, it really is an important work! You should care if you are someone experiencing high levels of stress or if you counsel those who do. AND, there IS an answer (you won’t like it!) that can help given at the end of this post.

Yes, it is very technical. You can’t skim this book easily unless you read only the chapter summaries (not a bad idea!). However, I find it very interesting to read about how well-connected (too well!) our minds are with our bodies. Here are a couple of book highlights

1. Chapter one: Stress activates primary and secondary responses that may actually increase our vulnerability to disease. Secondary? Examples given include alcohol abuse, poor diet, non-compliance with treatments. Primary? Your body does a couple of things in reaction to stress. First, your sympathetic system starts looking for inflammation. Immune cells look for an injury. You have more glucose available to burn and cortisol increases which also works to activate anti-inflammatory responses. Inflammation is the problem (a “rapid and nonspecific response to danger”). Too much inflammation? damaged tissue. Too much anti-inflammatory response? Damaged tissue. Those with depression may have become less sensitive to cortisol and so end up with lots of non-specific inflammation. Maybe this is why depression hurts so much!

2. Chapter 3: Poor sleep has serious health consequences, especially concerning chronic diseases. One study indicates that disordered sleep has a direct link to type 2 diabetes, independent of age and body size. Individuals with sleep apneas have a greater production of inflammatory bio-markers. Women may be at greater risk for cardiovascular diseases due to sleep problems than men. One problem (sleep problems) begets the other (inflammation) which creates a vicious cycle.

3. Chapter 4: “Western diets typically contain an abundance of proinflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and are low in anti-inflammatory omega-3s.” (p. 96). In other words, dietary fish oil helps promote healing and may lower symptoms due to inflammatory diseases. More fish oil, less vegetable oil.

4. Chapter 5: Links between stress, depression, PTSD, hostility and inflammation. Each of these things increases inflammation, increases sleep disorders which in turn…(you get the picture).

Okay, does anything help l0wer stress and increase healthy immune system functioning? This is the answer I promised at the top of this post. Are you ready? It is so simple you will hate it!* (that will be something to explore at a later date–why do we resist the things we CAN do to help our situation?)

1. Diet. Having a better (lower) ratio of Omega-6s to Omega-3s (more cold water fatty fish) seem to lower rates of depression. Higher Omega-3 consumption predicts lower suicidality, lower depression, and bipolar disease. It appears these amino acids help stop the overactive inflammatory response caused by repeated stress.

2. Exercise. It will initially raise inflammation markers (hence why many with RA feel that any exercise creates more pain), but later lower it if continued on a regular basis.

3. Counseling. Cognitive-Behavioral social support interventions have shown to reduce the inflammation effect by lowering stress. be effective in doing just that.

So, encourage your stressed clients or friends (even better, do it with them) to eat well, exercise (just walk!) and seek social support. In doing so, they will find relief from inflammation and the effects on the mind and body. I guess it is time for me to get up from this desk, skip the doughnut, and walk up to the library for a bit of exercise. On the way, I should stop by a colleague’s desk and get him to come with.


*Simple? Yes. Quick fix? No. Sure bet to solve all our problems? Absolutely no.


Filed under counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Depression, Psychology

Stress & Christian mindfulness, part 1

I’ve written about mindfulness in the past and based on numbers of folks coming to my blog looking for information about Christianity and mindfulness, I thought I might write just a bit more here. My intention is to write in two parts. Part 1 will cover some basics about stress and the idea of mindfulness. Part 2 will explore how Christian counselors might think critically about the topic and consider its use in their practice.

If this is not a term you are familiar with, you may wish to explore the goodly number of books in your local store discussing the topic. Why the interest? There is clear evidence that mindfulness has positive health benefits by reducing our stress responses to the chaos in our lives. Mindful individuals appear to have greater amounts of patience, able to avoid impulsive responses to stress, process rather than react to emotions, have greater capacities to be curious, open, accepting, and loving.

Stress and your body

It is well-known that small amounts of stress activate the body but larger amounts make us sick. But, did you know that the same biological response system that fights viral intruders activates with high levels of stress? Your immune system works in this manner (okay, my simplistic rendition): Your body senses an intruder. The microphages that come in contact with a virus act like little ants sending messages to their buddies to come and defend the colony. One of the messenger chemicals is interleukin-1. Your resulting fever is evidence that the body is working. But to work this hard, other bodily systems get such down. Your stomach and intestines stop or slow down their contractions, you lose your appetite, sexual drive, you have difficulty thinking clearly. These sick symptoms are more likely the result of your body’s defense mode than the virus that has intruded.

The SAME thing happens with high stress. Your pleasures centers shut down to conserve energy. Such activity decreases clarity of thought and pleasure and thus increases experiences of depression and anxiety. See how a vicious cycle of stress/distress leads to greater symptoms of depression/anxiety–a vicious cycle!

What is mindfulness?

Well, it depends upon who you ask. Definitions range from Buddhist forms of meditation, to being present in the moment, to being aware, to centering prayer, to having a nonjudgmental stance. So, for some it is a religious activity. For others it is a form of consciousness. And still others describe it as a relational “attunement” (e.g., a mother’s awareness of the meaning of her infant’s needs even before the cry; a service dog who picks up subtle clues that it’s owner is about to have a seizure). The truth is that each one of these fragments of definitions captures a little bit of what one observes in someone who is able to, in the moment, stand back from the chaos in their life and not react to it. Such people seem to be alert (not dissociated) to the moment, are being in the moment rather than reacting and doing something, are more likely to be describing events, feelings, perceptions, etc. rather than judging them.

In Dan Siegel’s The Mindful Brain (W.W. Norton, 2007), he lists a number of component parts to mindfulness:

  • Intention (rather than reactive), attention (aware), attitude (open, curious, non-judgmental)
  • Nonreactive to inner experiences (I notice my inner experience, but I am not merely my inner experience)
  • Observation, noticing, describing, labeling
  • Attending to sensations; acting with awareness
  • Either focused attention on the present or merely noticing all that passes through the mind

What about the Buddhist part?

There are two terms you’ll find when reading up on Buddhist meditation: vipassana (insight, clear thinking), samatha (concentration or tranquility). I’m not a Buddhist scholar but I do believe I’m in the ballpark about these next bullet points:

  • The goal is to get beyond (ab0ve) the experience of good and evil; of pleasure and pain to a higher level of experience
  • The goal is personal transformation and character development; awareness leading to the drying up of demands (desires?)

It is important to point out that Buddhism is not the only religion that espouses meditational practices. Christianity, from the beginning of the Church, has promoted the concept of meditation, albeit in significantly different form and purpose.

How ought we Christians to think about it?

Some might suggest that engaging in practices that encourage openness, neutrality (which is a misrepresentation of Buddhist practices) open oneself up to the occult. Others might be suspicious of hidden, subtle belief systems (personal transformation vs. Spirit-led transformation). These are legitimate questions. And yet I contend that we do not need to reject these concerns to acknowledge that God has given all humans the capacity to observe and grasp concepts that are true and right–even if we might staunchly disagree with their personal philosophies. This does not mean we take a concept into our life and practices without considerable critical thinking, but it does mean we are open to learning something that our own tradition has lost, ignored, or deemed unnecessary to healthy living.  I’ll attempt to do just that in the next post.


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling science, Mindfulness

Is burn-out an American phenomenon?

Part of my sabbatical is designed to understand how better to help pastors and their families avoid the crash and burn. There are many pressures (finances, conflict, loneliness, the fishbowl, etc.) on ministry families and while any one of them may not be overwhelming, together they can bring a minister to his/her knees. Worse yet, they can tempt the leader to seek comfort in ungodly ways.

But a friend of mine who cares greatly for ministry leaders was recently talking to an African pastor. This pastor has NOTHING. He ministers to those who have NOTHING, to those living under trees. They live in a country that is in the midst of a civil war.  He has his wife spend months apart ministering to the poor. When my friend asked about pastoral burn-out, this pastor could not comprehend the question. It didn’t compute–and not because he didn’t understand the concept.

Why? Are we Americans soft and weak given that we live in the land of plenty? Probably. But are there other explanations? I think so. Foremost in my mind is the place of expectationsin the life of Western pastors. Expectations of success, growth, contentment (from self and church community) create pressure and when expectations are only partially met, it leads to the temptation to discouragement and looking to greener grass. Secondly, I think living in constant crisis without hope for change rarely allows for collapse–unless it is to die. It is common for the greatest emotional collapse to happen when one has the opportunity to pause and reflect. In crisis, we do not reflect. When the crisis abates, then we reflect and see that our assumptions and expectations do not fit with reality. It is that point that leads to either leaning on the Lord while changing our expectations to match his OR either trying harder or choosing another assumption that causes greater pain.

What do you think?


Filed under Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Cultural Anthropology, pastoral renewal, pastors and pastoring