Laura Hoover's Grandson and the Physiology of Stress

I blog about the neuroscience and historical and spiritual perspectives on personality types and self-knowledge, but there were dozens of angles with which to approach this massively emotional Facebook post that appeared in my feed last week. 

This is my grandson, Hunter. He's a little first grader. His momma's car sometimes doesn't like to start right up. Sometimes he's a couple minutes late to school. Yesterday, he was 1 minute late and this is what his momma discovered they do to punish him! They have done this to him 6 times for something that is out of this baby's control! They make a mockery of him in front of the other students! The principal is responsible for this. His mom found him there, crying, and took him home for the day. Anyone want to help me flood this lady principal with calls telling her how inappropriate this is?
(XXX) XXX-XXXX [name of principal given]

My first reaction was heart-break for the boy banished to behind the placard for being late to school more than four times in a trimester, but then immediately afterwards, the next feeling was horror that people were going to fill the poor principal's voice mail with hate calls and letters. 

I have friends who are parents, and friends who are teachers, I understand the self-condemnation of being late, I have felt misunderstood and unfairly punished, and I work at an elementary school.  

But because I've been reading about the brain lately, I will keep my comments to those related to physiological reactions to stress. 

Because there is stress everywhere when you read this.  You can almost hear the internal alarm bells going off for the poor grandma, you see the boy and how sad he is, and you definitely hear the anger in the comments.  At the time of writing, 42,055 people have liked the post, and 134,840 people have shared it. 

In reference to Oregon teachers, one commenter named Kreg Watkins says, "...Grants Pass needs to wipe clean the district.  Hire new people that will never ever let happen again to little man [sic].  They hurt him!!! Teacher , pricipal, super needs [sic] to be replaced !!! AND NEVER EVER ALLOWED AROUND KIDS AGAIN [sic]... Fire them all!!!!!!!!!!!!"

Heather Williams says, "I would never tolerate this happening to my children at school, there would be hell to pay. Late or not, this is unacceptable!"

So let's take a look at all the different kinds of stress involved in this case, and see if we can understand the physiology a little better.

The Grandma

Image courtesy of nature.com.  Ignore the cingulate cortex right now.  Just look at the amygdala.

The grandma, upon seeing her grandson being separated from the rest of the class is experiencing an acute form of stress.  Acute stressors can happen every day; they can be normal, like deadlines, or quite serious, like car accidents, but they trigger the fight or flight reaction in the amygdala, a very small gland in the middle of the brain that is responsible for the hyperarousal of our major systems when we sense danger.  The amygdala is a key component of the limbic area of the brain, the part of the brain that developped when we evolved from reptiles to mammals.  In prehistoric days, we homosapiens needed quick, automatic responses to danger because quite simply, there was danger around every corner, and the hormones (adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol) that it releases when the alarm bells are screaming inside our head help our body move quicker under pressure. 

The fight or flight reaction activates the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) in the body, which guages the level of threat posed by external stimuli and prepares the body to react quickly.  The sympathetic branch of the ANS speeds up the nervous and cardiovascular systems by getting blood pumping faster and harder to the large muscle groups that are needed, compelling the body to move.  The pupils dilate to be able to take in more light, the hearing becomes more sensitive, and our hairs stand on end- the hairs acting like sensors that pick up on vibrations around us.  On the parasympathetic end of things, our digestion shuts down, as it is definitely not needed under acute stress (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).

Clearly, one can see from her Facebook post that Mrs. Hoover's Autonomic Nervous System is kicking into high gear in response to one of her loved ones being neglected and unfairly punished.

Hunter

Secondly, the boy's stress is also palpable.  Even though we mostly see his back, you can tell he's not having a good time.  His shoulders are hunched, and the side profile of his face betrays feelings of dejection.  The photos' description says his mom found him crying, and in a later interview for a newspaper article, she says he panics in the morning when he knows he's going to be late. 

We can presume that upon learning that he was, in fact, late that day, the boy would have also experienced his own acute stress with the associated ANS reactions.  But not only would his amygdala have reacted to the danger, he would have had internal stressors rise up almost immediately thereafter as well. 

Internal stressors can act like a secondary wave of stress, further compounding the susceptibility to "maladaptive learned behaviors if this stress has overridden his capacity to respond and adapt in healthy ways" (Kabat-Zinn, 2013).  Internal stressors could be embarassment and shame, loneliness, frustration and helplessness at being unable to do anything about his situation, or maybe he's even taken on guilt on behalf of his mom. 

The potential for his acute stress to become chronic depends on how much more often he continues to experience lateness and lunch detention.  A Harvard study on chronic stress in children concluded that "constant activation of the stress response overloads developping systems with serious, life-long consequences for the child.  This is known as toxic stress.  Over time, this results in a stress response system set permanently on high alert."  The consequences to toxic stress can sometimes be irreversible if, later in life, the child doesn't fully come to terms with what happened.  In a continuous state of nervous system arousal,

...in the areas of the brain dedicated to learning and reasoning, the neuroconnections that comprise brain architecture are more weaker and fewer in number. 

Science shows that the prolonged activation of stress hormones in early childhood can actually reduce neuroconnections in these important areas of the brain at just the time when they should be growing new ones.  (www.developingchild.harvard.edu, 2015)

Us, the Readers

Upon reading the Facebook post, how many of us didn't feel a surge of blood rushing to our faces, and our muscles tighten, and our heart beat pick up? Of course, all of us who have ever been misunderstood by an authority figure, and didn't have the words to make ourselves understood are angry as well, because we empathize with this helpless kid. 

Empathy-- "the ability to understand someone's emotional state and have a visceral or emotional reaction"-- is one of the nine major functions of the pre-frontal cortex, the last part of the brain to evolve. But some people think it comes from limbic resonance, synchronize systems

The Commenters

The commenters are obviously also readers, but there are a few of them who wrote about their own distress in childhood at being treated unjustly, and those commenters illustrate another dimension of stress reaction, and that is empathy expressed through the mirror neurons.  One in particular stands out.  A man, named Ordo Ab Chao, with 2203 likes at the time of writing, says,

As someone who only completed 5th grade, and dropped out in 6th because the school environment wasn't for me...
As someone who has been sick at school and been made to clean up the vomit, in class, with other students there, while the janitor and teacher
stand there and watch...
As someone who became an autodidact, and worked extremely hard for the knowledge I possess, because the school system allowed me to slip through the cracks...
This is one of the VERY few instances, where I can honestly say, "I am offended."  [... ]

 

When no one shows a speck of caring for a child, how can we expect to have caring adults later on? Ooooohhhhh....I'm calling this so called educator. I'm calling over and over...that message machine is going to catch on fire, I'm calling so much.

 

piano effects on brain.JPG

Mirror neurons are found in various parts of the cortex, namely the frontal and parietal lobes, superior temporal area, emotional resonance.  They see someone having an experience, and and the same part of their brain lights up as when they're having that same experience. Bestselling author Jeremy Rifkin, in a lecture for the RSA, says "we are soft-wired to experience another's plight as if we were experiencing it ourselves.... In a nursery, when one baby starts the cry, the other babies will cry in response.  They just don't know why- that's empathic distress- it's built into their biology."

 

The Teachers and Administration

 

Finally, a little more muted and in the background- and I only know this because I work in a school- is  the stress of the teachers and principal.  This isn't conveyed as clearly in the picture, description or comments, but it's been well-documented that teaching is a highly stressful profession, cited to have a lower effort-reward imbalance, one of several factors contributing to a higher burnout rate.  Studies have shown that, especially in female teachers, the allostatic load (a cumulative measure of phiological wear and tear) was higher than in other professions.  Teachers cite lack of staffing, lack of resources, an ever-increasing workload with less and less supportive parents with higher demands, as well as low pay.  (In terms of pay, here in Canada, we have it a bit better than in American schools, I'm told, but we certainly still go home exhausted every day. )

In caring professions such as nursing and teaching, we find chronic stress to be operating in the background with bursts of acute stress intermittently throughout the day.  Robert Smol, writing for the CBC, says

...In my experience, it has been the most highly motivated and committed teachers who undergo the most stress and who break down simply because they truly care for their students and, against the odds, try to deliver.

Mediocre teachers, it seems, have less of a problem in detaching their personal well-being from that of their students....

Saskatchewan professor Ron Martin from the University of Regina concurs.

Burnout is more common in the young, highly motivated, energetic, hard-working teacher," says Prof. Martin. "The people who burn out are the people who pour everything into it without balance.

Chronic stress, says Kabat-Zinn, as opposed to the sprint of acute stress, is like running a marathon.  "If we don't realize that we are actually engaged in an ongoing marathon, it is easy to run out of energy, what could be thought of as coping energy, and wind up feeling chronically exhausted and burned out."

As a result, teachers- who naturally feel the empathic distress that Ordo Ab Chao feels so strongly- may over time, develop Empathic Distress Fatigue (more widely known as Compassion Fatigue, which is another way of saying at a certain point in the demands of the job, they might be too tired to care anymore.