Psychological researchers have been studying the brain and the effect of stress in early life. Research shows that forms of early stress, such as child abuse and/or poverty affects the size of two important regions in the brain – the hippocampus and the amygdala. According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, children who experienced chronic stress such as in abuse or poverty had smaller hippocampai and amygdalae. These smaller regions in the brain were also related to behavioral problems during adolescence and adulthood.
Chronic stress can leave a lasting impact on anyone, whether adult or child. However, the child and the adolescent are vulnerable to the effects of stress because their brains are still in development. Seth Pollack, co-leader of the study, said, “We haven’t really understood why things that happen when you’re 2, 3, 4 years old stay with you and have a lasting impact.” Yet, this study has begun to reveal the correlations between early experiences and the size and function of certain regions of the brain.
However, what is clear is that chronic stress in childhood can lead to teen depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and many medical diseases, according to many research studies. Depression is a psychological illness that has been increasing in numbers among teens and adults, and the same is true with teen anxiety. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately, 8% of teens meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression. Across the length of adolescence, one in five teens have experienced depression at some point in their teenage years. NAMI also points out that in clinical settings, such as group homes, hospitals, or rehabilitative centers, as many as 28 percent of teens experience depression.
Major Depressive Disorder is a psychological illness that includes symptoms of persistent sadness, loss of interest in daily activities, occupational and educational impairment, along with eventual emotional and physical problems. It usually requires long-term treatment, including psychotherapy and medication.
Psychological research has found a strong correlation between early stressful life experiences, such as abuse, with mental illness in later life. In addition to depression, teens and adults can experience anxiety, such as generalized anxiety disorder. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a diagnosis given to those who experience excessive and irrational worry for at least six months. The excessive anxiety interferes with the ability to function and usually consists of extreme teen anxiety for everyday matters.
Lastly, another common disorder found in adolescence and adulthood as a result of chronic stress is Bipolar Disorder. Bipolar Disorder (Types 1 & 2) is a psychological illness characterized by one or more distinct periods of mania (or hypomania if Type 2) and depression. Treatment for Bipolar Disorder might include medication and psychotherapy, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, life skills training, psycho-education, and hospitalization, if necessary.
Seth Pollack continued to say about the study conducted at University of Wisconsin-Madison that, “it’s an important reminder that as a society we need to attend to the types of experiences children are having. We are shaping the people these individuals become.”
Early stressful experiences of children are leaving a lasting and not-so-healthy impression on the developing brain. Nonetheless, Pollack also pointed to the “robustness of the human brain” and “the flexibility of human biology”. Certainly, despite early experiences, with treatment, support, and the right coping mechanisms, teens can change, grow, and ultimately live fulfilling and rewarding lives. They don’t need to let their past limit their future.
University of Wisconsin-Madison. (2014, June 27). Early life stress can leave lasting impacts on the brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 1, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140627133107.htm