Research has shown that toxic stress – for example adverse childhood experiences (prolonged and extreme stress without compensatory support) changes the brain – increasing risk for addictions, eating disorders and other mental and physical health issues. However, on the other end of the spectrum, NO stress deprives a child in particular of the brain changes that help them learn emotional regulation and resilience. In childhood, life experiences AND life stresses (when coupled with family support) help the brain develop pathways that allow the child to better respond to stress in the future. The most important life experience for children is how their parents and other adults interact with them.

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Hi everybody. It’s Dr. Carolyn Coker Ross here and today I want to talk to you a little bit about, stress. So, you know, as we’re all quarantined, still, some of us, while in California, we’re still quarantine. I think the rest of the country is starting to reopen and we’re starting to reopen really slowly.

But I wanted to talk about some of the aspects of the quarantine that aren’t necessarily all the bad ones. You know, we talk about not being able to get a haircut, that’s a real problem if you have curly hair. I’m not getting our dye touched up, but also, um, you know, I’m seeing some interesting things among my patients. And I’m reading online about parents and their interactions with children. So I think it’s interesting because this is different usually what I hear from my patients is, you know, they’re picking up their kids, they take their kids to school in the morning. They pick them up from school and take them to sports practice and then after that they have music lessons and then dah, dah, dah, and dinner and bed. And, not much real face to face time between parents and children and all that and I’m seeing that change. I know maybe you like me, have had parents who said that, you know, character matters, but I don’t think we really think about how character is developed. Like. How do you get character? Are you born with it? Is it something you learn in school or what? Well, actually you may be surprised to find out that it is stress and our response to stress that molds our character. So just think about, I don’t know, maybe you were in the girl scouts or boy scouts growing up and you had different task that you had to accomplish in order to get you a little badges or think about, so that kind of activity builts character, of course, because you have to face a challenge and you have to figure out how to overcome it. You have to get through the tough parts of it and so on. It’s kind of like, let’s say you were, you know, you were going on a trip and as part of that trip, you, you know, you’re, you’re walking through, you know, an open planes, so to speak and then you come upon a stream and you have to figure out how to get across that stream, and then you feel maybe you decide you’re going to go from one rock to another rock to another rock, or you find a way to put a log across the stream and walk across the log, and then next thing you know, there’s a pretty reasonable sized mountain that you have to climb and then you’re trying to figure out, well, how am I going to climb that mountain? And there may be snow near the top of the mountain. You know, you can imagine where I’m going with this. The bottom line is, our ability to face difficult challenges and to, you know, use our brains to overcome them, to not fall into that place where we just give up and feel hopeless, and also feel like, you know, the world is all against us and this is just a horrible time. We’re never going to get out of it. That’s kind of stress is what builds character.

So we talk about, you know, three different types of stress. One type is the kind that you know, everybody has like little children have to go to kindergarten and that’s stressful for them and for their parents. We talk about, um, you know, getting married or having a newborn. You know, I think about all the parents who are posting pictures of newborn babies during the pandemic and you know, how beautiful it is, And yet kind of bittersweet that here you are with this wonderful experience, and yet you can’t necessarily share it with people. You can’t go and visit your in-laws or, you know, take the baby to see your sister because of the quarantine. So these are experiences that are, tend to be relatively normal, not the pandemic part, but you know, relatively normal experiences that then. We may need to get help to overcome. Like sometimes, um, you know, if you’re feeling down, you may want to call somebody for support or talk to a therapist, or you may just need to like, say you’re in, you’re climbing that mountain and there’s snow at the top. Then you want to, prepare yourself by, you know, bringing an extra jacket, et cetera, et cetera. Bringing lots of water along on your trip. So that’s the kind of thing that builds character. But often it does require some extra support or instructions or learning, et cetera. So that’s the normal kind of stress.

And then there’s stress that’s maybe a little more difficult, like the quarantine or the pandemic, or, things like that. But that this stress is manageable if you have a healthy enough support system, if you’re able to, share your pain with other people, like for example, maybe a child who loses a parent when they’re young. But they have, you know, close relationships with grandparents, they have another parent who steps into the void. And you know, so they have the support they need to get through these tough times. And that’s what’s happening. I think with, children being homeschooled now during the pandemic that many of them have so many questions and are wondering like what’s happening?

Their whole world is changing just as our whole world is changing and hopefully parents are being able to explain this to them and help support them. You know, even though you, yourself as a parent may be feeling sad or depressed or angry, you know, that we still need to support the children because they don’t really have the ability to understand that they don’t have as many coping skills as hopefully we do.

So the first part is stress is stress. It’s just normal stress. You know, going out to school, having a baby, getting married, all of those things are stressful, but they’re doable. The second type of stress is a little harder, but it’s manageable with support and you know, with, um, whatever skills we’ve developed as adults. And then the third type of stress is what’s called toxic stress. So toxic stress can be either stress sensitive. So overwhelming that, you know, almost nobody can manage and you could possibly classify the pandemic in that way. Or it could be, you know, living in a war zone I think is even more stressful or even, um, difficult stress but you don’t have the support system to help you get through it. And especially if you’re a child, toxic stress involves can, it can be, include things like child abuse or neglect or, having a parent with a substance use disorder or mental illness, all of those kinds of things. Because then whatever the stress is that the child has experienced, they don’t have the support to get through it very well.

So why am I going through all this? Well, yeah, my bottom line is stress builds character. So character is, is most often formed under stress, but it can’t be that toxic kind of stress like we’re seeing come up during the pandemic. More domestic violence, more drug abuse, more, drinking, um, people being more rageful and so on. That’s not the kind of, response that builds character. I’m not saying it’s wrong, it’s bad. I mean, people are coping the best way they can, but particularly for children, being able to have someone in their lives that they can depend on is how we build character. So, for example, research has shown that toxic stress, for example, you know, childhood experiences that are prolonged and extreme, uh, stressors without support actually changes the brain and therefore increases the child’s risk as an adult of having depression, anxiety, alcohol, or drug use disorders, eating disorders or other mental and physical health disorders. However, and this is the important part, no stress is not good for a child leader. So if, if a child is, if a parent is overly protective of their child, that deprives the child of particular brain connections that helped them deal with stress. So if as a child you are always coddled and never protected, then as an adult you may find it, you may be very sensitive to stress and find it very difficult to get through even mild to moderate forms of stress.

And that’s when we see, you know, young adults and teenagers who are just, you know, can’t leave home. They can’t launch because they’ve never faced really any significant challenges in their lives. So we need to find that middle ground. And if you as an adult, look back at your childhood and you realize, you know, I either was under a lot of toxic stress where I had chronic and persistent stress as a child, but didn’t have the support that I needed to get through it, then you may realize that things like the pandemic may set you off, maybe triggering you to be even more upset than you would like.

So if you’ve never been tested, however, you won’t be prepared to make. The stresses of day to day life, including, I mean, honestly, the pandemic is a stress. We’ve had pandemics in the past. I’m sure I won’t live to see the next one, but many of you listening will lead just live to see another one. Okay. Uh, for example, there are still people alive who went through the flu pandemic in 1918. So, you know, this is something that is part of daily life. Financial crises are part of daily life. This one is obviously extremely, more difficult than. What even the one that happened in 2008 but if you are never tested, you won’t be prepared.

So in childhood life experiences and life stressors, when coupled with family support, help the brain develop pathways that allow you to manage stress to be able to manage your emotions when you’re under stress. So life stresses that are healthy. Maybe things like, you know, as I mentioned, going to kindergarten, moving to a new city, taking a new job, having a new teacher, et cetera. The most important life experiences for children, the most important life experience for children is how their parents and other adults interact with them. So if you have children, and I’m seeing such beautiful memes on social media about how parents are interacting with their children, you know, fathers who are letting their daughters make put makeup on them, and, uh, parents who are building forts with their children and taking hikes and all of those kinds of things.

When you’re doing those activities with your child, when it’s a stressful time, that again, is teaching your child’s skills that will stand them in good stead when they become adults. So, you know, I’ve talked to moms who are hard getting their children to help them cook, basically teaching their children to cook. And some of the children are already teenagers and I wondered, well, how come your teenager wasn’t cooking with you before? And it was because they were never at home. You know, they were either at their sports activity or they may have been at their friend’s house, or they were up in their room on social media, et cetera. But now these new things are happening and these are so important for children and teenagers to have this supportive, inter nurturing interaction with their children. And despite all of the negatives of the pandemic that is one of the positives that parents are spending time with their children.

Now I understand that many children are also, you know, having very negative experiences with parents. But I’m talking to those of you who are willing to listen who, who are woke. And hopefully you are listening to ways to build character in your children rather than continuing the trend of the last generation where, you know, remember the helicopter parents, or the drone parents even even more. So that was a term that describe parents who were overly protective. They didn’t want their kids to experience any upset, and that is not a healthy thing for children.

Okay. So while negative or adverse childhood experiences can make a child become a teenager or an adult who’s hypervigilant or, um, you know, always on red alert. The reverse is that nurturing consistent childhood experiences teach children that life is good, that things will work out, that, you know, we’re all in this together and it teaches children that they are safe as well. And that is what’s called resilience. So the definition for resilience, which is something that can be taught at any age, you can learn to become tougher, more resilient. Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties. Now, psychologists define resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, pandemic, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems like COVID-19 or workplace and financial stressors, which all of us are experiencing during this pandemic. So as much as resilience involves bouncing back from these difficult experiences. It also involves allowing these experiences to change us for the better, allowing us to grow personally to become better human beings, better parents, better grandparents, et cetera. So this experience that we’re all going through now doesn’t have to set us up for negative things once the pandemic is over. It does however, teach us that while there are many aspects of life that we can control, there are also many aspects that are out of our control, so we can only control somethings and the other things we need to have that ability to accept and to make the best stuff and to grow with these difficult circumstances.

Now, being resilient doesn’t mean you’re never going to experience difficult times in your life. Everybody does you know, I’ve, I think I’ve said to you before, the Buddhist say, pain is part of the human condition. Well, this, this is, you know, this is part of being a human and part of building character.

Again, it’s about experiencing, distress. So there’s certain skills that I just want to mention to you that have to do with building resilience. And the first is teaching empathy and teaching empathy is, well. I just say empathy is sorely lacking in our modern world. You know, we have, I think, compassion fatigue as a, you know, particularly in the United States where so many people are not able to identify with the pain or suffering of other people. And this is, this is problematic as we are seeing in our current state. But empathy means being a friend in to make a friend. So teaching your child that in order to have friends, you have to be a friend first. So that’s teaching empathy.

The second thing that helps build the resilience is when you feel helpless. Sometimes helping others can empower you. So that’s, you know, teaching your children to be supportive of a friend who’s struggling. So reaching out to other people, having those FaceTime calls to someone who, you know, may be worse off even than you are. That’s the kind of thing that teaches empathy.

The second thing is having a daily routine and daily rituals. As easy as it is to live in your PJ’s. It is probably during the pandemic when we’re on quarantine, it’s probably not the healthiest thing. So obviously we’re all doing some of that and I have my favorite PJ’s, and I’m found that my laundry, instead of having workout clothes, mostly, has PJ’s in it. So that’s like, Ooh, that’s not a good thing. But having a ritual, getting up, you know, having your coffee in the morning, maybe sitting outside in your yard or on your porch or just looking out of the window. Whatever your daily routine is, and teaching your child to have a daily routine and daily rituals also helps build resilience.

Number four is practice and teach self care. Take the time. I know it seems like. Shouldn’t you, it’s not a big deal, but taking the time to rest, to eat, you know, some of us are just eating all day or you know, eating, not eating at all, and then bingeing in the evening, but taking the time to have three meals and at least one snack. Even if they’re light meals, but kind of stay on that routine of eating regularly throughout the day, getting some kind of physical activity. If you’re able to do that, and most importantly, getting enough sleep and you can model these behaviors to your child. Again. Being healthy is one of the requirements of building resilience. Because if you’re not feeling well, it’s hard to have empathy for others, it’s hard to be supportive of others and all the other things.

And number five, learn from tough times. You know, this is what builds character, being in these tough times. Often we can learn the most about ourselves during these difficult times. So it’s not too late even no matter how old you are to learn resilience, and it’s not too late to teach your children resilience. During tough times, we often find that relationships are the most valuable. So staying connected with people that we care about, is really, really important. And trying to understand what other people are going through. I mean, I just see and hear so many people talk about not understanding other people and this, even if we don’t agree with something other people are doing, I think it’s important to try to understand that everybody’s coping in the best way that they can do something that’s really a difficult time for all of us. So this time can also be very isolating, and that’s what highlights even more the importance of staying connected with people who are, you know, supportive and understanding. Sometimes joining a group, and many of you know that I treat people with addictions, including opiate addiction as well as treating eating disorders. And I know this is a tough time for people with addictions and eating disorders. So being able to find a group online. And there are, all of the anonymous groups are also available online, including eating disorder anonymous groups. So look for those groups online. Don’t use the pandemic as an excuse not to find a group because they’re available and they’ve been online for some time, and I think they’re really flourishing online now.

And finally practicing mindfulness, staying aware of staying in the present moment, trying not to go into that thought process of, you know, what’s going to happen in the future, and the excessive worrying about finances and your job and you know, the economy and all of those things that I know it’s hard, so hard not to worry about. But the answer does not lie in worrying about those things. The answer lies in being present to what’s happening now. So to the best of your ability, you know, take a break from the news. You know, sometimes I take a 24 hour break, you know, honestly. Nothing much is happening in 24 hours except more of the same. So it’s not like you’re going to miss some big alert that is going to change everything. So taking a break from the news, taking a break even from social media, even if it’s just for a day, can really help with peace of mind. And try and to, you know, just try your best not to make things worse and what makes things worse.

Well, obsessing about them is one of the things, using substances to deal with your discomfort and your worry. It’s like putting a bandaid on an open wound. The wound is still going to be there. All of the stuff that’s happening is still going to be there, but now you’re going to be more impaired and less able to deal with it.

So being proactive, helping others, having empathy, taking care of yourself. These are the things that will build character and help us get through this tough, tough time. It’s not going to last forever. I know that it seems like it’s lasting forever, but I can promise you it won’t. We’ve been through tough times before and we will get through this tough time, so see what you can do. Today to practice, building resilience.

So right now I want to just teach you just one breathing exercise that will also help when you’re feeling so stressed and overwhelmed and you just can’t figure out what to do. You know, like your mind is racing and, you feel like you’re on the verge of tears or you’re feeling down and depressed and you can’t get out of bed. Just take a moment. To take 10 deep breaths, so let’s do that together. Now, if you’re in a place where you can do that and you can do the breathing anywhere, even if you’re driving in your car, but stay focused, stay awake, you don’t have to close your eyes to do the breath and just breathe in through your nose and out one…two…three…four…five…six… seven…eight…nine…ten. Remember, you can do that wherever you are, whenever you’re upset, whenever you feel the stress starting to overwhelm you, taking even five deep breaths like that will bring you back to the present moment and help reduced that stressful feeling that, that toxic stress in your life. So I hope all of you are coping well enough and I hope you’ll remember to, practice some of these resilience skills.

I want to remind you that we have another anchor program starting in a week, and the anchor program is a 12 week intensive non diet approach to food and body image issues. We have a good group shaping up, so if you think you might want to join us, just go to and request a free consult and we’ll talk about your own issues with food and body image.

If you’re struggling with bingeing or whatever, and remember, this is just a free consult for you to take advantage of my 30 plus years of expertise. It’s not a sales call and I will give you what the advice that I think would help you. Whether or not involves it involves the anchor program. Okay. So please schedule your consult, go to and I look forward to seeing you next time. Thank you.