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Our busy lives have become increasingly stressful, and each of us has a different idea of what constitutes stress. But the really important factor is how we handle that stress. Some people seem able to calmly take all that life throws at them, while others react badly to the slightest upset.
Do we learn to cope with it - in the same way that we learn other life skills – or is it shaped by our childhood experiences?
This is a very complex issue and there is much controversy and research in this area. But it appears that there is more than one way in which our parents could influence our ability to handle stress.
Biological response to stress
When we respond to stress our bodies prepare for action – known as the ‘fight or flight’ response– mostly mediated by hormones. This ‘programming’ developed early in our evolution as it was a life-saver - helping us avoid danger and stay alive longer to reproduce (which is what life was all about in those days!).
But those who were too laid back to bother running away from the hairy mammoth, would not survive long enough to pass on their genes!
Early indicators of response to stress
Nowadays our response to stress is not so critical to survival and researchers have shown that babies vary in how reactive they are to stress. A normal response to stress is that our heart rate speeds up, which is due to a reduction in the slowing influence of the vagus nerve, on the heart. (When preparing for fight or flight you need your heart to be pumping blood vigorously round your body - to your muscles, lungs and brain).
Cathi Propper, a developmental psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her colleagues, studied children during their first year. They stressed the babies by taking them away from their mothers, and measured their heart response.
These low responders had a variant of a gene which has been associated with risk-taking behavior in adults such as gambling. But interestingly, this was not the final determinant of the children’s behavior. It was found that the response of these children normalized over time if they were cared for by sensitive, attentive parents. In other words, nurture won out over nature – the children’s upbringing became more important than their inherited genes.