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How childhood stress can impact mental health in adulthood

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: August 15, 2016
  • Published August 14, 2016

Extreme stress and young brains are a bad combination, something that sets in motion feelings and behaviors that can haunt us long into adulthood.

And just in time for the school year, a new study may help explain why.

The Duke University study used neuro-imaging to look at the biological effect of childhood stress on the adult brain. It's important research, because it parallels existing knowledge about the relationship of stress to unhealthy behavior.

For families, the timing is important because it comes at the start of the school year, which offers a concrete way to think about pouring as much into kids as we can to help them grow into the most amazing young adults possible. If childhood stress is the ailment, caring and supportive relationships are a potent antidote.

Parents, family members, coaches, teachers, nurses and neighbors all have the opportunity to be a person who makes a difference through nothing more than being someone a kid can trust and rely on, someone who believes in and encourages them, and who offers kindness and love.

The large, California-based Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, or ACES, has for years helped educate families about the lasting impact of childhood abuse and neglect.

It is also a reference point for researchers working to expand the science that explains the "why" behind poor life outcomes, as well as the remarkable role of resilience in allowing people to thrive, succeed and overcome.

In a nutshell, the more negative experiences you have as a child, the more likely you are to struggle as an adult.

Dr. Jamie Hanson, a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, researches the impact of childhood stress on the brain and behavior.

A study he published this month in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience looks at the lifetime stress and brain development of 72 mainly African-American men.

For two decades, researchers followed the men and their families, amassing a year-by-year index of childhood experiences. They knew when parents were struggling with addiction, experiencing domestic violence, or if there had been a divorce, financial trouble or other adversities.

At age 26, the men underwent brain scans as they played cards. The goal? Test how well they responded to success and rewards.

The results showed that "bad experiences can become biologically embedded in the brains of young children and leave markers that are still observable decades later," Hanson wrote in an entry about the findings at childandfamilyblog.com.

Men with more stress early in life showed less activity in the reward center of the brain.

"We found that life stress, very early in development, leads to lower activity in a 'reward processing hub' in the brain called the ventral striatum. Alterations in how the brain processes reward may be one way through which these adverse experiences influence behavior and life outcomes," Hanson said in an email interview.

Other studies have linked low activity in this part of the brain with lower optimism and poor self concept, Hanson said.

Very young children face the greatest risk.

"Adults who had endured high levels of stress between the ages of 5 and 8 typically displayed less activity than normal in the parts of their brains linked to motivation, positive moods and depression. We didn't find this pattern linked to stresses experienced between ages 9 and 12 or between 13 and 17," Hanson found.

Data for even younger children was unavailable, as the study only started monitoring participants at age 5.

Where the ACES study documented a correlation between the number of adverse events a child experiences and increased vulnerability as an adult to substance abuse, addiction, poor relationships and suicide, Hanson's work documents the biological impact of early stress on the brain.

"We know that there is a link between this early life stress and problems, but we don't know why or how this happens. This study moves us one step closer to figuring this linkage out, and it could be important for understanding and eventually treating different problems that occur with these types of early adversities," he wrote via email.

Dr. Cathy Baldwin-Johnson, medical director for Alaska CARES, a children's advocacy center at the Children's Hospital at Providence Medical Center in Anchorage, said it makes sense that the youngest children are the most vulnerable to the detrimental effects of stress.

"When babies are born, their brain is meant to grow to cues in the environment," Baldwin-Johnson said during a phone interview on Friday.

Early in life, the brain is shaping basic survival skills, things like eating and moving, social, language and learning skills. "All of these pathways get laid down in the brain at a young age," Baldwin-Johnson said.

Belittling children, not letting them know they are valued, emotional neglect, physical neglect — all of these things begin to have visible effects even before a child hits adulthood, she said.

Yet, for all of their vulnerabilities, children are also remarkably resilient.

"We can't prevent every single bad thing that might happen to a child," Baldwin-Johnson said. But "stable, loving, nurturing adults that are there to support kids and love them" can make all the difference in the world, she said, adding that "healing can happen at any point in a life span."

The takeaway for Hanson is a hope that one day medical science will be able to "reverse the impacts of stress rather than await the onset of symptoms." Also, on a policy level, he hopes that governments and communities do whatever is necessary to give every child a healthy beginning, through programs like head start and nurse family partnerships.

Hanson uses the phrases "support and enrich" and "cope and buffer" when describing how to grow healthy children.

For Baldwin-Johnson, the takeaway is that homes and neighborhoods should feel safe and be safe. If they're not, it's up to the rest of us to do our part, to make sure the children and families who live in them have what they need.

"Really, at its heart, it has to start in the community," Baldwin-Johnson said.

Support kids by letting you know you care; enrich their lives by doing meaningful things with them; help them cope by listening to and believing them; buffer them from bad things by cultivating their ability to endure.

"Simply put, the more we can foster children's development, particularly all children regardless of their life circumstances, the more we will likely improve our society, " said Hanson.

For all of the people out there who help children feel confident, safe and loved, thank you. Many of us don't need a research study to confirm your efforts have value, but the reminder doesn't hurt.

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