The Effects of Long-Term Stress

All children experience stress at some point in their lives, whether it be the first day of school or a particularly tricky exam. Experiencing these stressful events occasionally can even bring about positive outcomes. For example, a child may fair better during an exam if he is a bit nervous about it. Extended stress, on the other hand, can lead to severe long-term consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that a child going through such extreme, pro-longed stressful events as  witnessing domestic abuse, divorce, or severe illness is at a high risk for several problems during their later life.

Substance Abuse

According to both the CDC and the University of Maryland Medical Center, a child suffering from prolonged stress is at risk for developing substance abuse problems even after the stressful event has subsided. The misuse of pharmaceutical, excessive consumption of alcohol, and the use of recreational drugs have all been linked to negative psychological and physiological effects. The National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare lists irreversible damage to blood vessels, paranoia, violent behavior, organ damage, brain seizures, and many others as effects of commonly abused substances. The abuse of substances also affects those around the addict directly. Feelings of isolation, economic problems, and poor family and business relationships are all common for those suffering from substance abuse problems.

Brain Development

The Harvard University Center on the Developing Child states that exposure to prolonged stress can leave lifelong marks by affecting the developing brain. The release of certain stress hormones causes the growth, structure, and function of such brain areas as the hippocampus and amygdala to change. The hippocampus is an area that is involved in memory and learning, whereas amygdala is responsible for processing emotions. Thus, exposure to long-term stress factors may cause irreversible damage to these brain functions.  Changes to the structure and performance of these areas of the brain may lead a child to experience problems in their personal life and educational career.

Depression and Anxiety Disorders

According to the CDC, children affected by long-term stress are at risk for developing depression and anxiety disorders. Anxiety and depression often occur simultaneously. Those affected by co-occurring anxiety and depression often suffer from uncontrollable changes in mood, irritability, lack of motivation, and isolation. Even worse, if left untreated, these may develop into thoughts and acts of suicide.

The stress that children experience typically passes quickly without leaving any permanent damage. This makes the consequences described above rare. Severe and prolonged stress is needed to take place for changes as drastic as those described to occur. Children that have experienced extreme stress can benefit from psychotherapy and even medication. Even so, if left untreated, a child’s long-term stress can leave permanent marks.

The post was written by Clinical Psychologist Dr. Marie Cheour. Dr. Cheour has worked as a Professor of both Pediatrics and Psychology at the University of Miami where she received a 2002 Research Award, as a Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Turko in Finland, and as the Head of the Developmental Brain Research Laboratory, Cognitive Brain Research Unit (CBRU), at the University of Helsinki.