The Truth About Toxic Stress And Healthy Brains

In a thick southern drawl, Olympia Dukakis as Clairee Belcher in the movie Steel Magnolias declares, “You know what they say: that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

In Calgary recently, representatives from the Alberta-based Palix Foundation showed us an intriguing video with scenes, like the one above, from great films. We noted the interwoven theme: individuals persevere and overcome challenges through strength of character. It’s a message that echoes through every Hollywood plot, and is highlighted in every on-screen hero.

Then the video hits us with the punchline: it’s all a lie, and it’s hurting our children.

Palix, a non-profit focused on childhood development and mental health, presented the thought-provoking short film at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, showing filmgoers and filmmakers alike how flawed our understanding of human resiliency and character really is.

Our culture has developed a powerful myth about why we succeed or fail in life.

“When we asked people to think about life outcomes, they say the determining factor for success is willpower; the drive of the individual,” says Nathaniel Kendall-Taylor, senior vice-president of FrameWorks Institute, a Washington, D.C., research organization. Frameworks has conducted extensive surveys and interviews on this issue with Americans and Canadians to help Palix teach people about the real science around resiliency.

Disproving what most believe, numerous neuroscience studies out of institutions like Harvard University’s Centre for the Developing Child show that strong, resilient brains are not born, they’re built. The environment around us and every experience influences brain growth and our ability to cope with stress as adults.

And here’s where Clairee Belcher is totally wrong. That which does not kill us, can damage us for life.

When we’re stressed, our bodies produce cortisol, explains Dr. Robbin Gibb, an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta. As children develop, low levels of this hormone are secreted as they encounter normal, healthy life situations, like taking a test. This, in turn, strengthens the resiliency of young brains.

But chronic challenges, like long-term family strife, result in continual high levels of cortisol that can permanently damage key areas of the brain, Dr. Gibb says. Children affected by an onslaught of what Palix and FrameWorks describe as “toxic stress” are more susceptible to mental illnesses as adults, and less able to juggle and cope with the multiple tasks we face later in life.

What really fascinates us is how the Palix Foundation is taking this newer understanding of childhood brain development, and applying it in the real world.

In 2007, the Foundation launched the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative, pulling together teachers, social workers, health care professionals, government officials and others to explore new programs that promote healthy child development.

For example, Medicine Hat has the “New Ways For Families” initiative for those undergoing an acrimonious divorce, which can be a major contributor to toxic stress in children. It allows judges to divert such cases to family lawyers like Janis Pritchard, who have had special training offered through the Foundation.

Pritchard teaches parents techniques for managing stress and channelling the emotions of a divorce in positive ways. She then works with parents so they impart those coping skills to their children. “We vaccinate the children against toxic stress,” Pritchard says.

In the four years the program has been running, children who have participated show noticeable improvement in their marks and behaviour in school, Pritchard tells us. An Alberta government assessment of the New Ways program also found that every dollar invested produced $7.40 in social benefits, like reduced costs to the justice and health system.

On the silver screen, heroes from John Wayne to Harrison Ford’s Han Solo overcome adversity because they’re gifted with grit and inner strength. In the real world, it’s far more complicated.

It’s time to put away the old myths of resiliency and character and learn what it really takes to build a healthy brain.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit we.org for more information.

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