December 7th, 2011
09:51 AM ET
Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity: the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.
The idea that the adversity we experience as children will go on to wound us forever riles me as being particularly unjust.
But that’s exactly what Dr. Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale Stress Center, explained a few weeks ago, when we spoke by phone about her research on stress, anxiety and addiction.
“The stress and motivational systems in the brain are really susceptible to learning and adaptation,” said Sinha. “As children we begin to adapt to our environment and learn things from it. If a child has a pervasive sense of adversity in his or her childhood for whatever reason, the brain responds to that kind of hardship by becoming more sensitized to stress. It gets hard-wired to react much more strongly than someone else who didn’t experience a lot of turmoil. So, to some extent, you will always have an elevated level of stress.”
“Fascinating.” I replied calmly, when what I was really thinking was: “That is so bloody unfair!”
“What kinds of adversities are we talking about?” I asked.
“Parents’ conflict, physical and emotional abuse, sexual abuse, witnessing violence, loss of a parent, dealing with a parent who has a mental illness or addictive disorder. Also, divorce. But that doesn’t mean that all divorce will be in that category. There’s always the issue of how it’s handled. But in general, divorce has been related to stress-related disorders and addictive behavior as well.”
“What about bullying?” I asked, recalling a recent Youtube video made by a young boy who was being taunted to within an inch of his life.
“I haven’t personally seen data,” said Sinha, “but that may be among the types of stressors that lead to risk.”
“If our stress system is so adaptive, then how come it doesn’t just adapt to these higher levels of stress? What happened to ‘that which does not kill us makes us stronger?’”
“That’s a valid question,” Sinha explained. “The stress pathway is developing during childhood. The stress system needs time to grow and become fully functional. The same goes for the reward system, the pleasure pathway which responds to high-fat, high-sugar foods. So you’re right, we are one of the most adaptive animals, but we also take a long time to develop and it is during that period of development when we want to protect our children. And unfortunately that is eroding, in terms of children who have to live with all kinds of adversity.”
She paused for a moment. And then: “Of course there are the protective factors.”
“What protective factors?” I asked.
One of the most robust protective factors - and it comes from our ancestors - is that we are social beings. Number one is social and family support, she explained.
Second is education, which is a key component of brain development. The more children are challenged in protected environments, such as school, in ways like learning to make good decisions and choices and thinking abstractly, the more they are able to adapt to difficulties.
There is also personality-shaping optimism and emotional self-regulation. These are all the kinds of support that will have to come from the family and school environments.
And then there are other resilience factors. Is the child’s environment enriched? Does he or she have other kinds of stimulation that help the body and mind grow? Are there opportunities for physical development and exercise, which will contribute to neurogenesis (simply, the brain cells growing)?
“When are kids most vulnerable?” I asked.
“I’m not minimizing the effects of adversity at any age,” said Sinha. “But I would be worried about adolescents because that is when children are more likely to be pulling away from their parents and isolating themselves. But that doesn’t mean that when the children are younger there is less cause for concern.”
“Things happen,” Dr. Sinha told me in closing. “Families will face adversities. But if parents, teachers and other adults are helping to guide children by talking about the trauma and providing them with adaptive skills, then those children will be more inclined toward protection and resilience, as opposed to risk.”
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