MIDL for Teachers

Children Experience Stress Too

Have you ever experienced stress within your life? 

Children also experience stress and if they do not understand the skills of dealing with it then it can have serious consequences on their health, behaviour and ability to learn. Let’s understand the underlying factor of stress and its influence on children by looking at how we, as human beings, are naturally wired. 

We are here, right now, because our ancestors were great survivors. 

For thousands of years our ancestors have had to survive many dangers. Those that survived got to pass down their genetics through having children. The fact that you are sitting here right now shows that the survival instinct within your ancestors was strong and is also within you. This same survival instinct handed down to you through your ancestors is also deeply embedded within our children. 

This survival instinct manifests as what is known as the Stress or Fight/Flight Response. 

Understanding the Stress Response

In normal rest situations the Autonomic Nervous System  controls and regulates many of our automatic functions such as: 

* Heart rate.
* Digestion.
* Respiratory rate.
* Blood pressure.
* Pupillary response.
* Body temperature and so on.

This system breaks into two branches, the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous System. When danger is perceived and the Stress Response activated, the Sympathetic Nervous System is switched on and it overrides many of our Automatic Functions through releasing Adrenaline and Cortisol within our body. 

This then prepares our body to fight or run through tightening our muscles, increasing energy production, heart and respiration rate. It also slows down the digestion system, loosens the bowels, changes blood pressure and dilates our pupils creating tunnel vision. We then enter into "Fight or Flight" mode and become hyper-vigilant. All of this to give us a higher chance of survival – the mountain lion is about to pounce.

The triggering of the "Fight or Flight" response has a necessary function, to give us the best chance to survive danger. Within its function it designed to only be triggered when needed and then return back to "Rest and Digest" Autonomous Functioning through the engagement of the Parasympathetic Nervous System.

How the Stress Response Stays On

We can understand this by observing deer.
A herd of deer are grazing in a clearing. One senses the mountain lion approaching and its "Fight or Flight" system switches on due to the perceived danger. It raises its head; the other deer sense this change and raise their heads also. Their muscles tighten, energy production, heart and respiration rate increases. Their digestion system slows down and bowels loosen, their pupils dilate creating tunnel vision and they run, run until they are safe from danger.


Then when they are safe they have their head down grazing on grass again, all the systems within their body working autonomously again, back to the "Rest and Digest" function.  A human being on the other hand, due to the development of their thinking process, continues to relive the trauma of the attack. Escaping from the mountain lion, they spend the next hour, day, week, year or lifetime looking for the mountain lion everywhere they go. 

Physical, Mental & Emotional

Affects of the Stress Response

When the Stress Response turns on "Fight or Flight" mode and does not automatically turn off, then our body continues to be flushed with adrenaline and cortisol causing: 

* Muscle tightness.  

* Increased heart rate.  

* Excess energy production.  

* Dilation of pupils.  

* Auditory exclusion.  

* Tunnel vision.  

* Sluggish digestion.  

* Irregular bowel movements.  

* Locking of the diaphragm - breathing pattern change.  

* Hyperventilation.  

* Decreasing C02 levels.  

* Shaking / restlessness, etc.


We become hyper-vigilant and ready for action. This is not a healthy condition for learning.

The problem can be found within this survival mechanism, in the relationship between the stress response and the obsessive thinking process. Our ancestors learned to survive through the power of their thinking processes. The problem being that when the strength of this process turns towards mentally reliving trauma or pain, the stress response switches on and but does not switch off. 

We then relive the trauma again and again, continuously switching the "Fight or Flight" response back on through continuous reapplying of our mind towards the past danger. We literally become anxious about being anxious, fearful about of own fear, becoming locked in a perpetuating cycle of anxiety that over time develops into a chronic condition; "Fight or Flight" becomes our normal way of being.   

Our children are just as susceptible to being caught within this cycle as we are, and if not addressed it not only affects their ability to learn but also their ability to function within society.

Stress, Our Diaphragm and Hyperventilation

For many adults and children the stress response has at some time switched on and not switched off. It does not take much to do this, what seems insignificant to an adult such as withdrawn attention; a harsh word or an offhanded comment about body image can develop into defensive behaviors as a child moves into adulthood. 

Other social pressures like "stomach in, chest out" mimic the stress response by disengaging the diaphragm and engaging chest breathing. This can then trigger hyperventilation and lead to stress breathing as feeling natural.

The Diaphragm and Stress Breathing

The diaphragm is a fibrous, dome shaped muscle that sits at the base of our rib cage. Diaphragmatic breathing is our natural breathing when no danger is present, it occurs in the belly as the diaphragm, regulated by the brain, moves slowly downwards creating a vacuum that causes the lungs to fill and then moving upwards towards the base of the rib cage to expel air out. 

During times of stress the survival mechanism within our mind disengages the diaphragm from the breathing process in the out-breath position, locking it at the base of our rib cage to protect our heart and lungs behind our "natural armor". Once the diaphragm disengages and "locks", then breathing moves up into our chest bringing the muscles in our shoulders, chest and upper back into the breathing process, creating short, shallow stress breathing.


This chest/stress breathing causes these muscles to become fatigued, since they are not meant to be involved in the breathing process, they gradually tighten throughout the day. Our breathing rate then increases, its purpose being to increase the respiration rate in preparation for fighting or running. This process happens rapidly and has its purpose, the problem starts when our relationship to the stress response feeds it and it does not switch off; the suffocation of anxiety begins. 

Hyperventilation and Defensive Emotions

Identifying Stress Breathing

Stress breathing can be observed as the in-breath starting at the top of the chest and moving downwards towards the lower ribs. This downward breath then pushes against the diaphragm muscle, which is locked because of the stress response. 

Since the diaphragm muscle is shaped like an upwards-facing dome, it is structurally strong and it is not possible to push it down. This then gives us the feeling of our breath getting "stuck" just below our rib cage. We try to breathe in deeply but cannot take a full breath and feel like we are suffocating; this is anxiety stress breathing.


A process of hyperventilation then begins.

Hyperventilation is caused by the short, shallow breathing in the chest due to the stress response switching on and locking our diaphragm in the out-breath position. Once hyperventilation has started we begin a cycle of short, shallow breathing and increase the amount of C02 being expelled. 

Our brain uses C02 as a guide to regulate Oxygen levels, since the C02 is low it thinks that we are not getting enough oxygen and increases our respiration rate. As we breathe more rapidly we will have the feeling of not getting enough air and having to take an extra deep breath from the top of our chest down in our breathing cycle. This is experienced as needing to take an extra breath or excessive yawning.

This imbalance of C02 then causes us to become mentally dull, foggy, unable think clearly, agitated and our thinking moves at 100 mph "How can I escape from this?" Because of the unpleasantness of the adrenaline and this cycle of suffocation our defensive emotional responses are triggered to try to push the perceived cause of these unpleasant feelings away. 

Defensive Emotions

Defensive emotions are those that have the quality of "pushing away", they isolate us from others and ourselves as part of the survival response. Once the stress response is on and we start a cycle of hyperventilation, our defensive emotions towards the unpleasantness of this cycle arise and we become irritated, angry, frustrated, sad, fearful, lonely, jealous etc. as a response designed to try to push away the perceived threat. 

Reaction through these defensive emotions then embeds the cycle as our mind struggles to escape from the danger. It then in turn re-triggers the danger signal, flushes our body with more adrenaline, the diaphragm locks, the chest tightens and the mental dullness of the hyperventilation increases. 

 This article was written by Stephen Procter, The Mindfulness Alliance Foundation. If you wish to post this article on another website or in a publication please respect the author and reference/link back to this website, thank you.