Stress we face as children stays with us
December 7th, 2011
09:51 AM ET

Stress we face as children stays with us

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!”

I was nine when I fled the Iranian revolution and it would be another four years of going from country to country before I would see my immediate family again. Am I really doomed to lifelong vulnerability to stress, depression and possibly addiction over something I had no power to change? How many people have any control over their fractured childhoods? It is exactly when we are all at our most helpless and vulnerable.

“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.”

soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. foresightyourctpsychic

    What's interesting is that this doctor speaks of this hypersensitivity as an absolute, as opposed to an increased tendancy. Even when she is talking about "the protective factors", she still talks about the hyspersensitivity as something that will happen, as opposed to may happen.

    But observation shows us that two different people can go through the identical experience and have very different responses.

    There's more at work here than a, simple "stimulus-response", "you-were-traumitized-as-a-child-so-now-you-are doomed-to-be-an-anxious-adult" situation. There's the innate body chemistry, which varies widely from person to person; and there's the coping mechanisms that each person choses to bring into their lives.

    Our childhoods are important, but they are not the only thing that determines what our lives will be


    December 7, 2011 at 10:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • David

      My childhood trauma came from knowing that there wasn't a single safe adult around to talk to about the things that were happening to me.

      December 7, 2011 at 11:34 | Report abuse |
    • kmcg

      Did you read the end of the article?

      In the end, there is an important discussion about having family and social support, learning how to make good decisions, and having a safe place to grow physically and mentally.

      December 7, 2011 at 11:48 | Report abuse |
    • oldguy

      "But observation shows us that two different people can go through the identical experience and have very different responses." This conclusion drawn from observation can only be termed a presumption. The problem is with 'identical experience' and with 'observation'.

      December 7, 2011 at 20:21 | Report abuse |
    • Heidi in Oregon

      Have recently read several books on this subject.
      Helpful to see childhood trauma being addressed as a precursor to adult stress/problems.
      I grew up with a monster, not a mother.
      Have never been "right" since, despite years of counseling to overcome the resulting problems of depression, lack of self-esteem, etc.

      December 8, 2011 at 03:46 | Report abuse |
    • c s

      Dr. Rajita Sinha is mostly right; that because humans are such social creatures they are dependent upon their society to protect them. Of course individuals respond to the same stress differently, that is the individual variation. Humans are born so physically and mentally immature compared to almost every other creature. An elephant or horse are able to walk within a few hours of birth, while a human does not start walking until about one year. The human brain does most of its growth after birth; a normal person's head with triple in size after birth. So childhood stress stays with you forever but it varies between individuals. In the extreme case, some people worry about almost everything. At the other extreme are people who almost nothing affects deeply. Most people fall some place in between.

      December 8, 2011 at 13:33 | Report abuse |
    • Alex

      I completely agree with you, good point.

      December 9, 2011 at 16:18 | Report abuse |
  2. Alley

    In my own person experience I've always found that those from adversity are BETTER at handling stressful situations as adults than those who led cushy, stress-free childhoods.

    December 7, 2011 at 10:26 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Alley

      *personal experience*

      December 7, 2011 at 10:26 | Report abuse |
    • Spirit

      Agreed, Alley. I lived a sheltered life, kept away from all kinds of stress and challenges. My husband lived a hard one, having been abandoned and abused at childhood. I have the hardest time knowing what to expect now out of my adult life as opposed to him with his life. He knows things, keeps me in line and out of trouble just because of what he's experienced.

      December 7, 2011 at 10:54 | Report abuse |
    • chuck

      No mention of those children most affected by trauma in adolescents – gay adolescents.

      December 7, 2011 at 11:33 | Report abuse |
    • Opp

      It depends on how that adversity effects the child and what the adversity is. If the adversity is being raped by an adult or being severly beaten, it will create an emotional and cognative scar in developement that will, in most cases, weigh negatively on ther person for life. If the adversity is, say, learning to raise a sibling responsibly, then it will probably result in a more positive outcome and better ability to handle stress about responsibility. Also, each individual has varying inherant abilities to handle stress already. Some will naturally handle stress better than others.

      January 10, 2012 at 22:20 | Report abuse |
  3. Portland tony

    Of course adolescents feel stress. That, my friend, is part of the growing process. Except on an order of magnitude, is there any difference than the stress felt by a young soldier on the battlefield? We all have stressful situations built into our lives: Test scores, acceptance, love, success, failure and on and on...How we deal with it is what counts.

    December 7, 2011 at 12:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. ghost

    Yes, we become stress resistant after a hard childhood but there are two sides to a coin. I may handle stress great but I have trust issues and social quirks. You can take my home-no big deal but put me in a movie theatre with a bunch of strangers and I cringe.

    December 7, 2011 at 13:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • teresa, ohio

      ghost: well stated... one gets a clear picture of how childhood stresses can manifest in adult situations. thanks.

      December 7, 2011 at 16:32 | Report abuse |
    • johnkeating

      I could hardly get through college. I was attendng a large univeresity in a big city.

      December 8, 2011 at 22:28 | Report abuse |
  5. NY Friend

    Acupuncture treatments will release stored stress and help you deal with present stress much better.

    December 7, 2011 at 14:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Janet

    We might look before childhood. Stress hormones in a pregnant woman can cross the placenta and affect the brain development of the fetus. Some brains may be made more sensitive to the always alert "fight ot flight" instead of an automatic shut-off. A study in the Netherlands found that children of women pregnant during the Nazi occupation had a higher rate of cardiovascular disease.

    December 7, 2011 at 15:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • karrie pittsburgh

      That's interesting; I'm 52, my mother was 27 when she had me, my parents had been married four years. My mother alluded to my father's sister being 'difficult' from before my parents married to after I was born. My father's father was a suicide in 1951, and his mother died six years later, two years before my parents married so it was just my dad and his sister for awhile. Over the last 12 years, I've come to realize they most likely both had buckets of issues before I came along. This lends credence to the NOVA program 'Ghost In Your Genes'. Father extrovert, mother introvert and just kept her mouth shut, absorbing it all. I've been estranged from them for years, I have CFIDS and just couldn't take the bitter bickering and emotional power struggles between the two of them any more. My sense of self-preservation won out. (Not to mention that after I stood up for myself one time, my mother pulled me aside and told me not to do it again because 'he took it out on her later'. I was in my early thirties. 'Nuff said.) So possibly before I was born, then the 'big thing' that happened between them in 1968, yeah I probably was 'doomed'. But as I figure these things out, I feel better bit by little bit. It's just hard to go back to those scary times, and have to feel them all over again.

      December 8, 2011 at 06:38 | Report abuse |
  7. JW

    I tend to agree with this article having come from a very stressfull and discordant childhood background. I am now in my 40s and have an anxiety disorder. Through psychotherapy, exercise, meditation and journaling, I am able to control it...( I don't take prescript. meds, though they are effective for many). The brain does develop "pathways" and trigger responses to stress that can be very difficult to recognize and control, unless one invests a great deal of time and effort into therapy and self observation. Trauma, and neglect in childhood are costly life long passengers. Anxiety and depression states can become "habits" that are very difficult to break...but it can be done and "reprogamming" the brain to a healthier response level is quite possible with a skilled therapist over time.

    December 7, 2011 at 17:25 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Steve

      That explains then why "therapist" have such an unusually high rate of suicide!

      December 7, 2011 at 23:00 | Report abuse |
    • To "Steve"

      ...um, Steve, do you think that its possible (or probable) that your asserted 'unusually high rate of suicide' among "therapists" has more to do with the difficulties of coping with the perpetual taxing effects of extremely emotional and agonizing patient caseloads (day in and day out, and dealing with patient setbacks), vs your implied belief that 'therapy isn't worth a hill of beans because therapists can't even get it right themselves'.

      January 28, 2012 at 07:27 | Report abuse |
  8. Flower

    This makes sense to me, and explains much of my lack of resiliancy in adult life. My siblings had the protection of our mother, while she couldn't hide her dislike. Our father was an alkie, she was depressed. The 2 siblings closest to me in age were physically appealing, while the docs told my mother I was retarded (not true). I grew up with serious, untreated myopia and hearing loss, was bullied and shunned at home and school, with not a single adequate 'protector' or nuturer. Today, of all my siblings, I struggle the most.

    Thank you for this story, it validated many things I already suspected but could never prove. Great study, to those of us who grew up hypersensitive to stress, a bit of a validation that we aren't 'making it up'-we really did change...I knew it was happening, even as a child.

    December 7, 2011 at 18:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Roz

    I am also a person who survived a childhood – adopted at that – at the mercy of "Mommy Dearest" and her alcoholic puppet husband from a wealthy southern family. No trust. No nurturing. Conditional love. Violence culminating in a beating with a bullwhip. I have worked all my life to complete actually growing up and it destroyed any hope of having a good relationship/marriage. No Adult stopped what was being done to me.

    December 7, 2011 at 19:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. jazz

    Those 18 years of getting beat and mind-manipulated daily usually lead to gunfire in the home....I WONDER WHY? Dont kids have rights, DONT ADULTS(VETERANS) HAVE RIGHTS? You have to stand up to some pretty tough bullies to survive in this world. SURVIVAL of FITTEST is my motto. NO ONE has the RIGHT to BEAT or HAZE thier child. NO ONE. But is anything done about MY ABUSER.....absolutely NOTHING...his name is RICH RUSSELL. He is ex-AF and extremely violent and hostile(and REMAINS SO)...still after 18 years no arrest, no charges filed across FOUR STATE LINES...WHY? Im 30 now and I still have to put up with THIS? HELL NO. My mother has had enough of it too. WHERE is OUR JUSTICE?

    December 7, 2011 at 20:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Annie

    Parent-child relationship is the most crucial determining factor – nurturing/lack thereof dictates your fragility in life – I have seen this too often.

    December 7, 2011 at 22:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. RAS

    Good post. Reminds me conversations I've had with my wife when she's been worried about the toll a particularly stressful event in our lives might have on our children. So much of how children respond to stressful situations is based on how they perceive their parents' response to those situations.

    December 8, 2011 at 01:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. laurie koziel

    I love your info. on children. Much needed for parent's ability to do their best. We need to guard our kids eyes and ears from ideas that can stear them in the wrong way.

    December 8, 2011 at 01:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Donegal

    I too had a rough childhood and have anxiety issues today. Same for my husband. But in a crisis, we're the ones you want in the lifeboat with you–totally focused on getting through and out of the tough situation and not screaming, "We're all gonna die!" I know from experience that Hemingway was right: "The world breaks everyone and afterward some are strong at the broken places."

    December 8, 2011 at 07:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Steve Poorboy

    Devo.....Half of the people today couldn't survive 2000 years ago mentaly. Poor poor people.....I feel so sorry for you.

    December 8, 2011 at 11:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. missyk

    I was horribly bullied and abused as a child, plus my mother had some major family events (deaths, terminal illnesses) while she was pregnant with me. This article makes me feel better about being "different" and having some mental health issues (being worked on.) However wheny my eldest child broke her hand in an accident I was the calm one who could deal with the situation. My poor husband panicked, I think he got more freaked out then the kid with the broken hand! So I guess learning to not freak out all the time is a benefit to a stressful childhood

    December 8, 2011 at 12:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. ss

    I was abused as a child and I watched my mother being abused by a stepfather.(Medical attention required) All I will say is that when I see abuse first hand now, the abuser will face a very angry, highly capable, military trained man with bad memories of abuse. I'll pay the assault fine because I don't mind getting involved. Most people don't even report it.We need to defend the youth, not let them live like I have my whole life. IF YOU ABUSE MEET MY SHORT FUSE !

    December 8, 2011 at 13:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Steve Poorboy

    I was abused as a 8 yo child by my teenage sitter and I lliked it.

    December 8, 2011 at 14:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • SteveIsFabulous

      Was he hot?

      December 8, 2011 at 17:28 | Report abuse |
  19. learning

    Unfortuntally some us have issues from our past childhood, some more traumatic than others. My childhood was no picnic either, loss of a parent, abuse and being ignored (if not being abused), told I was worthless. However bad childhood was, you must learn to accept it. Confront what bothers you and learn to overcome what your fears are. Easier said than done, small steps to reach your goal is all you can do. I think too many people use their childhood to excuse bad behavior or their weaknesses. It is up to us as individuals to gather the strength, take pride in who you are , that you were strong enough to survivie your childhood and move on.

    December 8, 2011 at 17:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Rev Mike

      I agree with you completely. Did I grow up in a war zone? No. Was life on the highways of America hard? Yes. Did I survive? Absolutely. I learned something long ago, maybe from my father, maybe someone else. Every day is a new day with new challenges to overcome. So adapt. Improvise. Overcome. Tomorrow morning, if you wake up, it's a new day. New challenges. Nothing in life is certain other than that if you are alive now, you eventually won't be, so live NOW well. It's all you have.

      December 13, 2011 at 18:16 | Report abuse |
  20. George

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    December 8, 2011 at 19:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • MARVIN


      January 19, 2012 at 12:19 | Report abuse |
  21. Lansing

    where did my comments go ?? Am I missing some button to get through here???

    December 8, 2011 at 20:09 | Report abuse | Reply


    December 9, 2011 at 15:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Rev Mike

    My childhood involved a mentally ill mother and father with ptsd from Korea. We adapted. My dad's job required him to be gone a lot during my earlier years. Later on he and my mom decided that the whole family would move if any of us moved. From there on my life was one big adventure. Sure, there was the literal terror of being naturally introverted and always the new kid in town. We moved between 25 and 40 times between my 3rd grade year and graduation. Am I a basket case? Some folks think so. Personally I think that, though occasionally very scary, a childhood that includes homelessness in Alaska and the drive up and back, was occassionally a great and very grand adventure. I've done and seen things that many never see in an entire lifetime.

    December 13, 2011 at 18:03 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Karla

      Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wisehd to say that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

      August 2, 2012 at 01:20 | Report abuse |
  24. jyoti

    Even though I agree childhood stress affects early success and our ability to find and stay in good relationships, it does not determine how we finally end up in our life. Stress and adversities may prevent us from choosing partners immediately or make us procrastinate in decisions that are normal and easier for other people, but this does not determine if our decisions are going to be successful or not. In fact a sensible person with or without stress will probably will figure out what to do it may just take more time and energy as the voice of failure inside a affected person is louder.
    Most of the successful people in this world are affected in some way or the other..unless you have lost something how will you know its value? In fact a person who has everything from childhood may develop into a bored, selfish loser who never learnt the value of anything. I and my husband didn't have a greatest childhood , I lost my wonderful dad really young and grew up with a single over-criticizing mom who thought I wasn't very smart and my husband who became an overweight dull person after doing more than his share of supporting his lazy family. We have both turned alright where I teach college students though my mom's criticizing voice still echo in my head and I try to turn it around encouraging students to work harder. My husband is another example of a brilliant mind with need for very little things to make him happy. So experiences especially hard ones actually make you satisfied with your life and make you focus on important things.

    December 23, 2011 at 11:06 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. lostson

    Wow, this really explains a lot about me. My Mom always said she never wanted me and she showed it everyday. Then my father got sick when I was 5 and died when I was 8, so I raised myself after that. I'm much better at handling bad situations then most of my friends, because I've been on my own in dealing with life's crap. I've never been able to have a lasting relationship ever. I always feel that men always leave when you need them. It's a fight or flight life for me.

    December 28, 2011 at 14:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  26. BC

    You can always recondition yourself if that's a problem. It's all about interpretation, so, all that needs to be done is to re-interpret the situation. It's not like you're always doomed to be like that, things change. Perception, that's the key, alter the perception of the situation and you can alter your feelings, etc. about it.

    January 8, 2012 at 00:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Perception on top of Foundation

      Sure you can (and should) always be vigilant of your outlook and perception of new events, but the point of the demonstrated research and growing understanding of how the brain works is that childhood exposure to more extreme and prolonged stress literally changes how the brain becomes hardwired, and consequently how physiologically sensitized one is to future stressors (think about it as having a thermostat set to a lower threshold). But yes, even that might be somewhat malleable later in life -but not easily, not quickly, not absolutely, and not all that likely. (this is coming from a Ph.D. In stress rsrch)

      January 28, 2012 at 08:03 | Report abuse |
  27. Mimi Ward

    I grew up in a very religious home...used to have nightmares about Jesus coming back and leaving me behind because I was not "saved" or religious enough. My dad used to keep a little notebook in his shirt pocket and write down all my "sins" like inadvertently seeing my brother in the bath, not loving Jesus enough, etc. and told me that God was doing the same and that I would be punished...and that Hell was way worse than a beating with his belt. There was one person in my life that made a huge difference. She was a neighbor who was then 50 something, never married, never had children of her own. She "fell in love" with me when I was a few months old and became a second mother to me. She took me to museums, are galleries, observatories and taught me to ride horses, and in general, enjoy my life despite the restrictions, fear and stress. And although movies were forbidden, she would read to me and helped me learn to read when I was only 3. She was my dearest friend her whole life. I am grateful that she lived with me and my family the last 5 years of her life and we were with her when she crossed over, for we loved her, too. I always knew I could tell her anything and she would not violate my trust. It is because of her that I have been able to deal with life mistakes I have made and learn the value of love and compassion. I shudder to think of who I might have become without her love and support. Yes, I still have a high level of stress sometimes, but just remembering what my dear friend taught me helps me relax and pay more attention to the good things life can offer.

    January 13, 2012 at 15:11 | Report abuse | Reply
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  29. Zia

    Miranda,No, you won't see any the lunar epilcse form Ohio on December 10, 2011. However, given clear skies, you'll see the total epilcse of the moon on the night of April 14, 2014.Bruce

    August 2, 2012 at 01:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. JeanineJoy

    It seems there is a great deal of agreement that outcomes vary. I agree.

    However, my work has looked into what determines who has a good outcome and who has a not so good outcome.

    The Ph.D. posting January 12, 2012 said changing perceptions as an adult was "not that likely."

    I disagree that it is not likely. It is very likely if...the individual is supplied with the right knowledge and tools. It is unlikely that someone will stumble upon those tools themselves (today) and unlikely they will be successful without said tools. But the fact that recovery and positive brain changes are rare today is not because of impossibility–it is because we are not using the right tools and sharing them broadly.

    Yes, social support matters. But it is not the solution. Yes, there are a lot of people who experienced some sort of abuse as a child. Some recent studies that combined verbal, sexual and physical abuse from all sources prior to age 16 showed 40% of children experienced some degree of abuse. Interestingly, some of the studies show that verbal abuse is more damaging than sexual abuse.

    Which gets to the reason for my post. Why would verbal abuse be worse? Because verbal abuse of a child almost always translates into the child living with a negative and critical voice in their own mind. Their self-talk reflects the lies that became their beliefs when they were children so they reinforce the negative input everyday.

    Which leads me to what I've found about changing perceptions, re-framing one's past, and healing from childhood abuse–it boils down to addressing the root cause of the ongoing issues which are in the mindset. When the mindset shifts, the internal dialog changes, positive changes can occur in the brain and every area of life improves because the problem is addressed at its root.

    The mindset determines the stress level. Re-framing abuse can take many forms but as many posters have stated, they are stronger because of what happened to them. Focus on what you got out of the situation–the greater inner strength and resilience. If you're not there yet, look at the fact that it is possible to do so and use that to shore up your own belief that you can fully recover and not just survive but thrive. Where you begin the journey does not matter–you can get to better-feeling places.

    August 5, 2014 at 18:52 | Report abuse | Reply
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