Bruce S. McEwen’s September 21, 2011 article, “ Effects of Stress on the Developing Brain ,” posted on The DANA Foundation’ s website, should be of interest to parents, teachers and others who work with children and parents. My interest is centered on the impact of the chronic stress a child experiences when living with undiagnosed, unhealthily discussed substance abuse [something I refer to as secondhand drinking / drugging]. Using the new research on how the brain develops from infancy through age 25 and the role of stress on that development can help us better appreciate that reducing the stress associated with secondhand drinking/drugging in a child’s life is very important. I’ve copied and pasted two of my previous posts to help explain this statement:
In previous posts, such as: “ How Teens Can Become Alcoholics Before Age 21 ,” I’ve written about how the brain’s developmental processes from ages 12 – 25 make a person’s brain especially vulnerable to developing a problem with alcohol abuse, even alcoholism.
The same is true of wiring coping skills for dealing with a family member’s substance abuse and/or substance addiction (alcohol or drugs); in other words, wiring skills to cope with secondhand drinking/drugging (SHDD) — coping skills such as those developed to “handle” a loved one’s verbal, physical or emotionally abusive drinking behaviors. Examples of these kinds of SHDD coping skills include retreating inside one’s mind or physically when confronted with abusive or scary drinking behaviors; carrying pent up, explosive rage that spills out in other situations because it cannot be expressed to the person abusively drinking/drugging for safety reasons; attempts to be especially “good” to make up for or “fix” the problem; or ….
When a person, especially a young person, does not understand drinking behaviors as a consequence of brain changes (and in the case of addiction, a brain disease) caused by the substance abuse, they think “it” (the behaviors) are their loved ones. Thus, they think their loved one’s behaviors are something they have to accommodate or thwart or believe, because, after all, it is their loved one! So they internalize — wire — coping skills to respond to the drinking behaviors.
As you’ve also likely read on this blog, the brain embeds brain maps (neurons talking to one another to produce a particular activity) for everything we think, feel, say and do — including how we cope with SHDD. The brain is especially vulnerable to how it wires these coping skills during the development that occurs from ages 12-25 — the time of brain maturity shown in the image below, a time-lapse of brain imaging studies reprinted with permission from Dr. Paul Thompson of UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging.
Brain development occurring ages 12-25 makes a young person especially vulnerable to wiring unhealthy coping skills that they will carry throughout their life, unless and until, they understand that substance abuse / addiction causes brain changes and the resulting behaviors are not a reflection of them (the young person), they are the result of those brain changes that cause the drinking behaviors (further described in the “related posts” listed below).
The developmental brain changes occurring between ages 12-25 referenced above are related to:
1) Puberty. Puberty triggers new hormonal and physical changes, as well as new neural networks.
2) Continued development of the cerebral cortex (front area) — the “thinking” part of the brain. This involves neural networks wiring within the Cerebral Cortex — the idea of learning calculus vs. memorizing multiplication tables, for example. It also involves neural networks in the Cerebral Cortex writing to those in other areas of the brain — the idea of controlling emotions, which originate in the Limbic System, with logical thought, which originates in the Cerebral Cortex, for example.
3) “Pruning” and “strengthening” of neural networks. Pruning is when neural connections (i.e., brain cells talking to one another) that are not used or are redundant fall away (get “pruned”), and those that are used get strengthened, which makes the remaining neural connections more efficient (similar to the way an insulted cable wire works more efficiently than a non-insulated one). This concept is explained in more detail at The Partnership at Drug Free.org website, A Parent’s Guide to the Teen Brain .
Image: Thompson, Paul. Ph.D., Time-Lapse Imaging Tracks Brain Developing from ages 5 to 20, UCLA Lab of Neuro-Imaging and Brain Mapping Division, Dept. Neurology and Brain Research Institute, http://www.loni.ucla.edu/~thompson/DEVEL/PR.html Permission: Dr. Paul Thompson 5.7.09
Bottom line: everything we think, feel, say and do is determined by our brain’s wiring (brain cells talking to one another). Helping young people understand SHDD as the cause of a loved one’s drinking behaviors (behaviors caused by changes in the brain caused by substance misuse) AND helping them develop coping skills to deal with SHDD is critical and a much needed addition to any substance abuse education or intervention program.
THE HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF SECONDHAND DRINKING/DRUGGING (SHDD)
“Something most of us do not fully understand is the physical and emotional consequences to the health of a family member or friend that are caused by secondhand drinking/drugging (SHDD). These health consequences are the result of the repetitive activation of the brain and body’s instinctual fight-or-flight stress response system. For many family members and friends, this system instinctively engages as they try to cope, control, minimize, deny, protect self and others when faced with a loved one’s chronic substance misuse with little or no understanding of the condition/disease.
The Fight-or-Flight (a.ka. Stress Response) System
The fight-or-flight system is complex, but in very GENERAL terms, it works as follows.
The system engages when the key stress hormones – adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol are triggered. These stress hormones cause a number of reactions: blood vessels under the skin to constrict to prevent blood loss in case of injury; endorphins to kick in to blunt pain; the digestive system to shut down and muscles controlling the bladder to relax in order to conserve glucose.59 These stress hormones also cause the bronchial tubes of the lungs to dilate in order to carry more oxygen to the muscles; the liver to breakdown stored complex carbohydrates into usable glucose for energy; the blockage of insulin receptors at the nonessential tissues and organ sites in order to increase the flow of glucose to areas needed for fight-or-flight60 and an increase in heart rate and blood flow to the large muscles so as to enable a person to “run faster, jump higher.” This response system even causes the pupils to dilate in order to see better. It’s impressive what our bodies can do in such a short time without consciously “thinking” about it!
All of this occurs because the instinctual hardwiring of our fight-or-flight system was “built in” to be triggered by physical danger in order to keep humans safe – “RUN or FIGHT but don’t just stand there!! That’s a gigantic woolly mammoth coming at you!”
Today, however, the fight-or-flight system is triggered more often than not by thoughts and emotions rather than actual physical danger.61 Nevertheless, all of the physical changes that the system sets in motion – the increased glucose, heart rate and muscle contractions, for example – still occur. Yet, for the most part, a person does not engage in the physical activity that expends the energy these physical changes are meant to support.
Therefore, if a person is under repeated or constant stress, all of the physiological reactions just “sit” in various body tissues until (or if) they are reabsorbed or expended. The physical and/or emotional health ramifications of chronically activating the fight-or-flight system, but not carrying it through to its conclusion, are many. They may include: headaches, upset stomach, skin rashes, hair loss, racing heartbeat, back pain, muscle aches, anxiety, depression, migraines, difficulty concentrating, vertigo and the like.
SHDD might also result in
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Unexplained joint pain, night sweats, or fever.
Excessive weight gain or loss
Chronic fatigue and immune deficiency syndrome
Spastic colon or IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)
The physical (let alone emotional) impacts of secondhand drinking/drugging are real. Collectively, we must start to acknowledge this fact. And when we or someone else we love or know talks about these physical symptoms, we must ask ourselves, “Am I / Are they living with an active substance abuser?” If the answer is yes, effective treatment is far more complicated than simply treating the physical symptom/ailment.”