How (Childhood) Stress Changes Our Brain and Affects Us In Adult Life?
Life is a stressful event. From birth to death, we're subject to different types of stress, but in this article, I would like to focus on childhood stress and how the stress we go through as kids changes our brain and affects our mental abilities, mental and even physical health in adult life.
What is stress?
Stress is the natural response to feeling under pressure or threatened, when we are overwhelmed and unable to cope.
There are three types of stress: acute, episodic acute, and chronic stress.
3 types of stress
Acute stress is the type of stress that lasts for a short period of time. This includes situations such as narrowly avoiding being hit by a car, running into a bear in the woods, going on a job interview, giving a speech, or being faced with a work deadline.
Episodic acute stress is the type of stress when a person experiences acute stress frequently. For instance, when a person faces work deadlines on a regular basis because he has a messy, poorly organized job. Episodic acute stress makes you feel like you are often under pressure or that things are often going wrong.
Chronic stress is the type of stress, which is constant and persists over an extended period of time, and which usually lasts much longer than a month. This type of stress is the most harmful for us because it affects both our mental and physical health.
But what about childhood stress?
Here are some examples of childhood stress
Worrying about schoolwork or grades
Juggling responsibilities, such as school and work or sports
Problems with friends, bullying, or peer group pressures
Changing schools, moving, or dealing with housing problems or homelessness
Having negative thoughts about themselves
Going through body changes, in both boys and girls
Seeing parents go through a divorce or separation
Money problems in the family
Living in an unsafe home or neighborhood
Going through physical or emotional abuse
What (childhood) stress does to our brain?
It's well known that stress can kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
It's no different with childhood stress, only the effect is even more profound. Because it not only can kill brain cells, but also prunes our neurons and synapses away, which plays a significant role in the development of our brain.
When we're young, we have an overproduction of neurons and synaptic connection, which is why between early childhood and adulthood, developmental pruning (also known as synaptic pruning) occurs in our brain. That's how the brain eliminates extra synapses (brain structures that allow the neurons to transmit an electrical or chemical signal to another neuron).
This is a natural process that occurs in our brain in order to "turn down the noise in the brain" and prepare our brain for becoming more specialized in the things we're good at and interested in. It makes our brain more focused, reflecting our naturally developed interests and abilities.
But if a kid, before the developmental pruning occurs, has already experienced a lot of childhood stress, which has already pruned away some of their neurons, then during adolescence, when the brain starts to naturally prune neurons it doesn’t need, then, suddenly, there may be too much pruning going on.
What does it mean for us?
If, as a kid, a person faces adverse childhood experiences, they will more likely to develop depression, bipolar disorder, eating disorder, anxiety disorder, or poor executive function and decision making, many of which can lead to substance abuse. It will have a profound negative effect on our decision-making abilities, self-regulatory processes, attention, emotional regulation, thoughts, and behavior.
When too many neurons and synapses are being pruned away, due to childhood stress and later developmental pruning, we lose the chance to develop emotional resilience, the ability to waver under the weight of life’s suffering and trauma but not fall down.
What about "Whatever doesn't kill you make you stronger"?
We all respond differently to stress. Not everyone's mental (and physical) health is sabotaged by continuous, unpredictable stress in childhood. Some adults, even though they endured a difficult childhood, are still emotionally resilient. For some reason the past didn't affect them that much.
The question is: why are some more fragile than others? Is the old adage "Whatever doesn't kill you will make you stronger" true?
No one goes through life without some stress and adversity, which wouldn't be optimal for healthy development either. Because experiencing just the right dose of hardship as a child or teenager is what helps us to build coping skills and resilience, which is what helps us to handle the challenges in adult life.
Then why for some of us, childhood stress causes developmental (mental) problems and sticks with us in adult life in a form of traumas?
Why some suffer more from childhood stress than others?
Part of the answer to this question is chronic stress. We've already covered three types of stress earlier in this article, but what we haven't talked about yet is that chronic stress is always caused by the dysfunction of the whole "environment" (in other words, of all aspects of life), not just some parts of it.
If, as a kid, you go through a lot of stress (childhood stress) and you aren't being provided with a properly functioning support system such as your parents and family, your life turns into a constant stress, also known as chronic stress. Eventually, it will first rob you off your neurons and synapses, and later in life of resilience and even health (here I mean both, mental and physical health).
As a human being, we need emotional support from our family. We need to be accepted and loved. We need to know that no matter what, we have a shelter, our family and home, to come to in times of need. That no matter what, we have a place we can come to and be safe and taken care of. That even if the whole world will turn away from us, we know that we have our home, our family, that no matter what will keep loving and caring for us.
It's okay to go through stress like sitting an exam, or changing schools, but only as long as you have strong emotional support at home. Together, as a family, people can go through a lot. For them, "Whatever doesn't kill you will make you stronger" may be true. But for those of us who don't have strong emotional support, stress will eventually become chronic and hurt us.
This article is a little different from what I usually write about here, but the information I've just shared helped me to not only see the reason for some of my mental problems but in a way see a way out. Now when you know how childhood stress changes our brain and what impact chronic childhood stress has on our adult life, you will be more mindful of your interactions with kids, your own or not, as well as more understanding towards those people who have to deal with the consequences of their adverse experiences from childhood.