Stress and Mental Health in Early Childhood

The amygdala helps coordinate responses to things in your environment, especially those that trigger an emotional response. This structure plays an important role in fear and anger

When given a choices people will choose to avoid losing versus risking the gain if there is a chance of loss. A behavior known as loss-aversion. When the amygdala—an almond-shaped part of the brain is damaged and involved in emotion and decision-making people tend to take more risks without regard for the gain.

Amygdala stimulation causes the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and mediates the release of pituitary-adrenal stress hormone (Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone, CRH) in response to fear. CRH causes the adrenal gland to release epinephrine & cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone and increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues. Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation.  Epinephrine causes an increase in heart rate, muscle strength, blood pressure, and sugar metabolism

Stress in early childhood (children in the study were between 4 and 7 years of age) and more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) resulted in a weaker amygdala response. In turn caused higher levels of aggression and attention problems.  These can result in poor mental health long-term if not addressed and treated.

Imagine being a child and involved in daily stress that lasts the majority of the day- each and every day.  Hormones above are being dumped into your blood stream and system constantly and eventually this becomes the normal level of hormones the body needs to function.  By the time many children get out of these situations the damage to the hormone systems and nervous system- as well as mental health has been done. 

Further, studies compiled in Karatekin et al. (2018) discuss limitations of the study performed but include other findings in other studies that differ and present a more complete and diverse view of the issue of college students, mental health and ACEs.

ACEs helps to identify college students that might have worsening mental health as a result of a multitude of stressors versus a singular identifiable stressor.  The overall amount of stressors versus a singular stressor may be also a factor. The mental health factors viewed for this study was anxiety, depression, suicidality and substance abuse disorders. There is a known increase in the psychological community that these issues are elevated in those who have high ACEs scores- especially those with unmanaged or unaddressed mental health disorders, trauma, and/ or those who lack coping skills. 

Stress is a killer. Worse it can leave people to live in agony and set up individuals for potential development of mental health issues. 

As adults we talk about stress on the daily- good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress) and various collections of things we acquire daily while we are “adulting”.  Imagine yourself having high rating on the ACEs (meaning you have had a high number of adverse childhood events) and a lack of emotional/ mental health support.  Lack of resources to learn coping skills that are positive choices.  Imagine some of these kiddos get to go to college.  Some may not because the statistics of kiddos who have high scores on the ACEs.  The CDC says this “ACEs can have lasting, negative effects on health, well-being, and opportunity. These experiences can increase the risks of injury, sexually transmitted infections, maternal and child health problems, teen pregnancy, involvement in sex trafficking, and a wide range of chronic diseases and leading causes of death such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and suicide.

ACEs and associated conditions, such as living in under-resourced or racially segregated neighborhoods, frequently moving, and experiencing food insecurity, can cause toxic stress (extended or prolonged stress). Toxic stress from ACEs can change brain development and affect such things as attention, decision-making, learning, and response to stress.

Children growing up with toxic stress may have difficulty forming healthy and stable relationships. They may also have unstable work histories as adults and struggle with finances, jobs, and depression throughout life. These effects can also be passed on to their own children. Some children may face further exposure to toxic stress from historical and ongoing traumas due to systemic racism or the impacts of poverty resulting from limited educational and economic opportunities.”

I encourage you to follow up with the website for the CDC below because it also states that 21 million cases of Depression and many diseases can be prevented if we can put protective and preventative factors in place for our youth.

1 in 6 adults report that they have experienced 4 or more ACEs as a child.  There are 10 ACEs factors.

My education in psychology, counseling and human behavior combined with an understanding of stress management and a multitude of disorders allows me a unique lens and many solutions for stress management.  Working with other providers, connecting those I serve to providers should they so choose to address the many complexities involved with childhood stress and the mental, physical and sociological complications as a results of traumas experienced at a tender age- we can work through learning skills to manage stressors and avoid the bubble over that happens when one becomes overwhelmed in stressors.

It is critical to develop a support system, skills, and learn about your particular circumstances to avoid becoming one of the many statistics involved in the negative outcomes of ACEs.

Next article….

We will be discussing Sleep and Mental Health….

Centers for Disease Control, “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), last reviewed April 3, 2020

Karatekin, Canan. “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), Stress and Mental Health in College Students.” Stress and Health, vol. 34, no. 1, Wiley Subscription Services, Inc, Feb. 2018, pp. 36–45, doi:10.1002/smi.2761.

Park, Anne T., et al. “Amygdala-Medial Prefrontal Cortex Connectivity Relates to Stress and Mental Health in Early Childhood.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, vol. 13, no. 4, Apr. 2018, pp. 430–39, doi:10.1093/scan/nsy017.

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