Childhood Hardships May Trigger Lifelong Susceptibility to Stress

In yet another study that links mental and physical well-being, researchers from Brown University have found that people who experience adversity during childhood are more susceptible to stress throughout the rest of their lives. The study measured specific stress hormones and markers of inflammation in adults while exposing those adults to mentally and socially stressful situations. Participants who reported experiencing some level of abuse or neglect as a child had consistently higher stress indicators even before the stressful situation began; the elevation was even more drastic in the hours after they experienced that stress.

This particular study was looking at the physiological response to stress. Inflammation is suspected as a contributor to several types of physical illness. But the fact that emotional stresses can have a long-lasting physical affect on the body suggests that the emotional affect stays around through adulthood, too. “Hardships in Childhood May Lower Resiliency” writes PsychCentral.com when introducing this story. Resiliency is an increasingly common term. In ecological circles, “resilient” is usurping “sustainable.” Sustainable suggests maintaining an even keel indefinitely, while resilient speaks of strength, recovery, and the ability to heal and move on. A resilient landscape has the tools it needs to take care of itself and bounce back. People work the same way.

Psychological resilience does not mean that a person will never become depressed, never be overwhelmed by stress, or never need to find a therapist. But it does mean that a person is in a better position to work through these things, and possibly has more fully developed emotional tools that will help them do so. And as this recent study shows, resilience starts young. We know from existing research that kids who experience abuse, bullying, neglect, and trauma are more likely to struggle in school, become antisocial as a teenager, face depression and anxiety as an adult, and become addicted to drugs and alcohol. Certainly none of these outcomes is an absolute guarantee. But if kids face hard times and aren’t helped to heal—whether through therapy, counseling, familial support, social interventions, or whatever means necessary—they are likely to be less resilient, and are more likely to be harmed by the pressures they face as the grow into adulthood.

© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • R.Snape

    October 13th, 2010 at 10:59 AM

    If an armour is damages when it is still being moulded then it will end up being a defective one and will therefore offer lesser-than-normal protection throughout its lifetime. This is exactly what happens to kids who experience abuse or difficult situations early on in their lives.

  • giles

    October 13th, 2010 at 7:19 PM

    a hurt kid can carry those feelings of hurt for a very long time. and there’s no doubt that those feelings have an effect on him even when he grows up.

    its not that easy to just forget and erase such things from one’s memories and it is for this reason that those memories may haunt the person whenever there is something similar happening in his life as it did in his childhood.

  • WD

    October 14th, 2010 at 6:09 AM

    great analogy there, Snape :)
    And this is why it is so important to be careful about how you treat your child and how you punish them for any mistake that they might commit. Its very important that we handle the issue with a lot of care because a moment of rage from our side can really leave an imprint on their minds for years.

  • OE

    October 14th, 2010 at 12:02 PM

    kids have a tender mind that is not suited for many difficult situations and their exposure to such problems could be the major problem because something that is experienced by a young mind stays in for a very long time.

  • Hal

    October 14th, 2010 at 2:32 PM

    So many victims continue to be victims for the remainder of their lives, if not at the hands of their abusers, then at the hands of drugs or alcohol. How depressing. Only those that can afford help will get better, that’s what you saying? Because to get treatment you need money or health insurance.

  • Thomas J.

    October 14th, 2010 at 3:21 PM

    That right there is why you need to do your darndest to work through your issues from childhood and not deny them. I don’t want to be carrying my baggage around when I’m seventy. That’s if I make it that long and don’t give myself a stroke first with all the strain.

  • Fran J

    October 14th, 2010 at 6:35 PM

    I don’t know- in some ways I agree with this assessment and in other ways I don’t. It’s just that some people seem to be born naturally resilient and they don’t need talking and therapy to get them past all of those stressors that they encountered growing up. Why is that? I think that for many this is a serious case of nature winning out over nature, they grow up with what they had and by defying the odds they are able to move past all of that stuff. Why it happens this way for some people and not for others could continue to be a mystery, just in the same way that there are many who grow up in fantastic homes and still experience so much up and down in their own adult lives that is really beyond unexplainable.

  • Malcolm

    October 14th, 2010 at 6:55 PM

    Familial support? Don’t make me laugh. My family thinks support is the same as brushing it all under the carpet and never speaking of it. Talk about a wall of silence. If you attempt to bring up how awful our childhood was, you are stared down into a submissive silence and/or ignored as if no-one heard you.

  • DANNY

    October 15th, 2010 at 6:27 AM

    It may create problems later on in life but I have a question-does having gone through hard times in one’s childhood not prepare the person better in dealing with such situations later on in life?

  • Jasmine

    October 15th, 2010 at 7:15 AM

    My husband carries mental and emotional wounds from childhood. I don’t think he’ll ever be free of them because he won’t acknowledge that they are affecting our lives today. His answer is to pretend them didn’t happen. He gets stressed easily and it escalates very fast.

  • Elaine

    October 15th, 2010 at 11:30 AM

    I think when you have experienced difficult childhood circumstances can affect your physical resilience as well as your mental resilience. I don’t know anyone facing mental health challenges that isn’t also more susceptible to physical ailments than the average Joe. A study of that would be interesting.

  • Roslyn

    October 16th, 2010 at 2:24 PM

    If you’ve never dealt with your childhood, you’ve never lost that sense of fear from back then. Of course you’ll get stressed easily when it’s just under the surface like that. Getting bigger and older doesn’t automatically change how you feel inside.

  • tanya f.

    October 16th, 2010 at 4:48 PM

    “Among the subjects who reported adverse childhood experiences, the concentrations of interleukin-6 in their blood were always elevated above those of the control group, …”. Why don’t doctors take blood samples from patients where they suspect childhood issues that the patient isn’t revealing then? Finding those elevated levels would confirm that and give them somewhere to work from.

  • James N.

    October 16th, 2010 at 7:43 PM

    That would be a dangerous trend to follow. First, you don’t just take blood on a whim. Secondly if the patient’s not ready or willing to reveal that, their therapist then uses their skills and training to make the patient feel comfortable enough that they will do so in their own good time. And only if the therapist feels that’s the right route to take. Knowing you were right serves no purpose apart from boosting your ego.

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