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Stress and the Brain: To Fight, Flee or Freeze -That is the Question

(Editor’s note: below you have the final part of the 6-part Stress and the Brain series. If you are joining the series now, you can read the previous parts via the links below.)

Stayin’ Alive

Understanding the Human Brain and How It Responds to Stress


With a better understanding of the neurobiology of stress, the LD – ADHD – stress connection becomes clear.  Students with learning disabilities or ADHD, confronted with the stress created by exposure to tasks that are in reality or in their perception too difficult (and thus threatening), exhibit the protective behavior of any organism under extreme stress:  They fight, they flee, or they freeze. When these kids don’t understand why they can’t do what other kids can do (master the stressor), and they can’t see any way to get out of a situation that won’t go away, they begin to shut down. Trapped in this situation, from which there is no apparent exit, they may lash out with words or fists.  They may tear up papers, throw books, or overturn desks.  As much as they love their teacher, they may bite the hand that feeds them.  If they override their impulse to act up or act out to escape the stress caused by a feeling of cognitive incompetence, these kids may freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights.

Full 6-part Series on Stress and the Brain, excerpted from Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It:

Jerome SchultzJerome J. Schultz, Ph.D., the Author of Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It (Jossey-Bass; August 2011), is a clin­i­cal neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist and is on the fac­ulty of Har­vard Med­ical School in the Depart­ment of Psy­chi­a­try. He served until recently as the Co-Director of the Cen­ter for Child and Ado­les­cent Devel­op­ment, CCAD, a multi-disciplinary diag­nos­tic and treat­ment clinic which is a ser­vice of the Cam­bridge Health Alliance, a Har­vard Teach­ing Hos­pi­tal.

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