Early Life Stress Can Affect Brain Development and Mental Health
Early Life Stress (ELS) is defined as the exposure to a single or to multiple events during childhood that exceed the child’s coping mechanisms and leads to extended periods of stress, such that the child’s innate ability to recover from the body’s response to the stress is overwhelmed. Childhood stressors include abuses of all kinds, neglect, hunger, witnessing violence and other household dysfunction. Unfortunately, poverty, parent divorce, illness, death, and substance abuse are counted as ELS and so many children are subjected to those. A clear estimate of how many children experience ELS has been hard to gather. One study in 2007 estimated that 3.5 million or 22.5% of all children in this country came to the attention of child protection services. And we all know how low the true rate of disclosure is.
ELS is a devastating fact of life and one that can have long-term consequences. Little has been done to fashion early intervention programs that can be helpful in preventing and treating ELS. One of the most helpful ways to begin to develop such treatments is to more fully understand what Early Life Stress can do to children as they grow into adults.
Cognitive or brain-related consequence of such stress need to be better known. One report indicated that nearly 32 percent of adult psychiatric disorders are due to Early Life Stress. Various forms of early adversity account for about 67 percent of risk for suicide. Exposure to multiple episodes of ESs can significantly increase the risk of mental illness and disease. Sexual abuse between the ages of 9 and 14 has been linked to smaller hippocampal volumes and prefrontal cortex dysfunction.
Since the early 1990s, a large body of work has focused on the impact of chronic stress in pregnant women on the developing child’s brain. A strong relationship has been identified showing that chronic stress during pregnancy can lead to an inability for the child and later adult to cope with even normal stressors. Many children come into the world at risk of learning disabilities, attention problems and high levels of anxiety because their mothers were super-stressed and did not recognize how their stress levels might change the way their baby’s brain developed. Exactly how chronic stress during pregnancy affects cognitive functioning and emotional well-being in the developing child through specific neurobiological pathways is still poorly understood.
However, the importance of the connection between ELS and chronic stress in pregnant women and the subsequent impact on their children in the form of a life-long impact on their intelligence, memory, executive function, and emotional IQ needs to be broadly disseminated in the hope of future prevention through education.