The Science of Neuroplasticity and How it Can Help Heal Childhood Trauma

Hope is a strong emotion that is evident in times of high stress. How so? Scientists have been learning more about stress tolerance and how it can help us remain regulated during dysregulating circumstances.

What is Stress Tolerance?

Simply put, stress tolerance is the threshold at which an individual is able to effectively and consistently handle stressful situations. It is the ability to remain regulated despite experiencing a triggering or dysregulating circumstance. 

Each individual has their own level of stress tolerance. Some have a low stress tolerance while others may have a high stress tolerance. This is totally normal. The level of stress tolerance we have is often based on past experiences and depends on whether an individual has learned healthy coping mechanisms, received relief following a stressor, and learned to self-regulate during times of stress. 

When we have learned to self-regulate during times of stress, we are much more likely to be able to handle more stress. We are able to shoulder more because we know how to cultivate regulatory relief for ourselves. However, if we haven’t practiced or learned how to self-regulate, our stress tolerance will be very low. 

The Science of Neuroplasticity

***A warning to those who might be sensitive to animal testing***

Scientists learned a huge lesson from rats in the 1950s with a few experiments. In the first experiment, scientists placed some rats into a bucket of water. At first, the rats seemed to give up fairly quickly and drowned within two minutes. With the second group, scientists took the rats out right before they drowned. They played with them for a bit and then placed them back in the bucket. This time, the rats fought longer and harder to stay above water. 

What made the rats behave differently in the second experiment? They were given hope. They made the connection in their brains that at times of stress, relief happens. It is an amazing demonstration of the power of neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity. But how can we translate this to our children with trauma? 

Many children with trauma are like the first test group in the experiments mentioned above. They have never experienced hope or relief coming at times of stress. As a result, they can potentially struggle. But we also now understand that we can build their stress tolerance.

How to Build Stress Tolerance in Children with Childhood Trauma

Stress is a fact of life, but how we react to stress is the key. For children with trauma who have not been given hope or have not practiced self-regulation, stress can dysregulate them and sabotage their healing process. Our job as parents and caregivers is to give them hope and to help them learn healthy coping or self-regulation tactics. 

If your child or student is having a hard time, then it is time for a dose of regulation; in other words, a dose of hope. Have them go to a calming room or corner, take a walk, or have a drink of water. In essence, you are removing the trigger from their line of sight, providing them the use of a weighted item, or giving them a breathing break to help them learn self-regulation. As soon as you see the child become dysregulated, give them that dose of hope right away. If you are a teacher, you might consider a class-wide brain break to save the dysregulated child the potential embarrassment of being called out. 

One of the best brain-based self-regulation tactics is deep breathing and breath-based activities that are done consistently throughout the day. Doing these every 15 to 20 minutes may seem like it’s too often, but having it on this consistent schedule over the course of time makes the connections in their brain that there is hope and they have the guarantee that relief is coming. 

If your child or student is having difficulty even when they are in a regulated space, work on a plan with them that includes:

  • Where to go
  • Whom to go to
  • And what activity could be helpful

This will provide the child with a sense of control, which is a big part of creating a safe environment. It also ensures that their brain makes the connection that when they feel dysregulated and out of control, there is still hope and relief. 

However it is important to mention that without building a good relationship on the foundation of trust with your child, the rest of these techniques will not be successful. 

Some Final Thoughts

By providing those doses of hope, or relief, your child with trauma will learn to self-regulate over time with healthy coping mechanisms to stressors and triggers. Remember, this will take time. Also, each child with trauma is different and will have different journeys down the path toward healing. Above all, practice patience, love, consistency and connection.