Does Childhood Stress Literally Get under a Person’s Skin?

According to a new study, childhood psychological stress can literally get under one’s skin and lead to chronic disease later in life. Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Stanford University conducted a study to determine what role parental maltreatment and socioeconomic disadvantage in childhood play on the development of chronic illness in adulthood. The researchers discovered that stressors in childhood literally get under the skin and lead to negative health conditions. The authors noted that the presence of chronic stress in childhood also has an adverse effect on social behaviors. They said, “Behaviorally, the model posits that early stress fosters vigilance for threat and mistrust of others, traits that make it difficult to form deep social ties. Early stress also impairs self-regulation, creating a proclivity for unhealthy behaviors, and alters patterns of endocrine and autonomic discharge.” Together, these reactions lead to increased inflammation. The authors added, “It suggests a cascade of events through which early stress ‘gets under the skin’ at the level of tissues and organs. These events culminate in mild but persistent inflammation, which in concert with the host’s genetic makeup give rise to adult chronic diseases.”

The researchers studied data from a childhood adversity model to come to their conclusions. The two major stressors, poverty and parenting, were interrelated and both contributed to the onset of chronic disease. The researchers said that parents in low socioeconomic conditions often have their own mental health issues and work longer hours, resulting in less attention paid to the children. In addition, the impoverished conditions cause conflict and stress between parents in the household, resulting in more chronic stress for the children. The researchers said, “Once data like these are in hand, we will be better positioned to construct detailed accounts of how childhood stress ‘gets under the skin’ and use this information to guide the development of interventions that ameliorate the deleterious health consequences of early stress.”

Miller, Gregory E., Edith Chen, and Karen J. Parker. “Psychological Stress in Childhood and Susceptibility to the Chronic Diseases of Aging: Moving toward a Model of Behavioral and Biological Mechanisms.” Psychological Bulletin (2011, July 25). Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0024768.

© Copyright 2011 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

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

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  • Daniel E.

    Daniel E.

    August 2nd, 2011 at 11:54 AM

    There’s always something from childhood that cannot be forgotten.It may be a good thing or bad but it is really hard to forget.And when it is bad,it makes such an impact on the child that it creates trouble not only then but will continue to haunt the child even in adulthood.

  • Michelle Glass

    Michelle Glass

    August 2nd, 2011 at 1:51 PM

    I have been trying to research long term effects of childhood trauma, especially the effects on the adrenal glands and functioning in later adult life. I’m finally finding validity to what I know is happening in my own body.

  • Janett


    August 2nd, 2011 at 3:38 PM

    If only more parents were more aware of the stresses that they can cause their kids and the problems that this can lead to for them later in life, maybe they would think twice before doing and saying some of the harmful things that they do.

  • Elizabeth Whittaker

    Elizabeth Whittaker

    August 22nd, 2011 at 6:11 PM

    The formative years are when you’re at your most vulnerable of your life. What happens then will shape you more than any other period. Why don’t potential parents think about that before they plan a family? Every single day there’s always one fool who becomes a parent when they don’t have the time or finances to raise a child, resulting in the poverty, physical, stress and general bad parenting issues that child has to endure noted in the article.

  • sophia mcguire

    sophia mcguire

    August 22nd, 2011 at 6:41 PM

    Those poor children! Stress symptoms and related ailments go so deep in more ways than one then literally. What a shame they have to suffer that through no fault of their own. A child can’t help the family they are born into.

    It truly is a lottery of sorts whether you’ll come through those formative years unscathed or not. Very, very sad.

  • tracy jackson

    tracy jackson

    August 22nd, 2011 at 8:05 PM

    I know a young woman that has three little kids, is on benefits, and is pregnant with a fourth. She’s my neighbor and complained to me about how hard it is having a family and little money. I asked her why in the world she keeps having kids when she can’t afford it, can’t get a job, and can’t take care of three easily let alone four. I’m kind of blunt like that and we have that kind of relationship where we can be with each other.

    She said that birth control was against her religion-plus she’ll get more money when the new baby comes along. I just shook my head. She has no clue how much their upbringing will affect them. I’d bet $100 they will all show signs of that tissue and organ inflammation too. Some kids sure get dealt a rough hand in life from the beginning.

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Title   Content   Author is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice nor delay in seeking professional advice or treatment because of something you have read on