Psychology Explains How Childhood Adversity Harms the Brain

Psychology Explains How Childhood Adversity Harms the Brain

childhood adversityHealth

Childhood adversity doesn’t stop affecting you when you become an adult. Instead, the effects accompany you into adulthood, making things a little more complicated than they’d otherwise be. You might find that you struggle a little too much with emotional and physical health conditions.

You might feel like no matter how hard you try. So you don’t make any progress. However, psychologists explain that you don’t have to keep living this way. Learning to heal adversity can give you hope, answers, and positive insights.

Childhood adversity stems from encountering chronic, unpredictable, and stress-inducing events. The more events a child encounters, the more severe the hardship will be in their minds. These unpleasant situations are called Adverse Childhood Experiences and affect more than half of the population.

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Even with the alarming percentage of those affected by childhood adversity, the news isn’t all bad. While it can have many severe consequences on the brain, further research shows that there’s something you can do about it. Once you know the harm of adversity on your brain, you can start making changes to reverse the effects.

What is Childhood Adversity?

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Childhood adversity describes many situations where a child experiences emotional neglect or abuse. These Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) go beyond the typical challenges of growing up and can include the following:

  • Growing up with a mentally ill parent
  • Having an alcoholic parent
  • Losing a parent due to divorce, abandonment, or death
  • Emotional abuse or neglect of any kind
  • Experiencing sexual or physical abuse
  • Verbal humiliation
  • Household challenges
  • Domestic violence towards their mother
  • Criminal household member

Psychology Explains How Childhood Adversity Harms the Brain

Children experience Adverse Childhood Experiences from the environment the parent creates for them. The things a child grows up around drastically affect everything about their life and mindset. Adverse situations stay with them, following them into adulthood.

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Children also take in these experiences through biology, affecting them from when they were conceived. A mother carries adversity from her life into her pregnancy, and her stress hormones affect fetal development.

When a child experiences adversity, it affects their minds, immune system, and physiological stress response. Many people blame a child for their bad attitude or behavior problems, but these issues indicate high levels of adversity. The adversity can stay with a child as they grow, affecting them well into adulthood.

Additionally, adversity harms developing brains and increases the risk of developing autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer, and mental health conditions. People likely won’t suffer from these ailments until they become an adult, but it all stems from the adversity they experience as a child.

Surprisingly, research indicates that childhood trauma can also play a role in disease development. Scientists discovered a link between adversity in childhood and physical disease in adults. The number of adverse experiences a child had, the more likely they would require medical care as an adult.

Those who faced four or more adverse experiences are twice as likely to have cancer as an adult. Additionally, each experience increases a woman’s risk of developing an autoimmune disease by nearly 20%. Between the mental and physical health problems, finding a way to heal adversity is essential.

Eight Surprising Impacts of Childhood Adversity on the Brain

Here are some possible outcomes of harm done by experiencing childhood adversity.

1 – Childhood Adversity Can Cause Epigenetic Shifts

Frequent adverse situations in childhood cause your physiological stress response to go into overdrive. It eliminates your ability to respond appropriately in the future, even after you become an adult. These epigenetic shifts cause your genes to stop doing their job of regulating your stress response.

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2 – Inflammation

When your stress response is high, it causes inflammation. The inflammation can cause you to overreact to daily stressors, making the inflammation even worse. Inflammation can lead to chronic health conditions later in life, so reducing them is essential.

3 – Childhood Adversity Might Impact Brain Size

Scientists discovered that when the brain is chronically stressed, it releases a hormone that shrinks your hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of your brain that processes emotion and memory and helps with stress management. People who experienced more adverse situations as a child had a higher risk of shrinkage.

Additionally, adverse situations affect the prefrontal cortex, affecting decision-making and self-regulatory skills. It also affects the amygdala, the fear-processing center of the brain.

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4 – Premature Aging

Traumatic events make children seem older when it comes to their emotions. New studies indicate that it can cause premature aging on a cellular level. Premature aging occurs because telomeres become eroded when trauma happens, causing cells to age faster.

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5 – Difficulty Reacting to the World

The brain has something called the “default mode network” that helps determine what’s relevant or not. Children who have experienced traumatic events might struggle to figure out what they need to focus on or do next. As adults, these people might still have trouble reacting appropriately to the things around them.

6 – Emotional Reactivity Often Stems from Childhood Adversity

Children who experience high amounts of adversity tend to have weaker neural connections. The weakness interferes with their prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, and, for girls, the amygdala is affected as well. These weak connections cause an issue with emotional reactivity, leading to stress, dangerous decisions, and anxiety.

7 – Lower Cognitive Scores

Studies show that people who experienced persistent adversity had lower cognitive scores later in life. While children might struggle in school when they face adversity, they become adults who have a hard time, too. Adults might struggle to perform well in a career path or experience difficultly learning new things.

8 – Increased Risky Health Behaviors

Children who experience high levels of adversity are more likely to participate in risky health behaviors. They might start smoking or abusing substances early on, continuing into adulthood. If they don’t deal with the issues, it could lead to increasingly dangerous behaviors.

Put Your Research on Childhood Adversity to Good Use

If you’ve wondered why you struggle with your emotional and physical well-being, adversity could be the key to unlocking answers. Once you know that adversely affects all aspects of your life, you’ll feel free to find ways to overcome it. Adversity can affect your adult relationships, too, making it essential to healing from your past.

Learning about adversity can help you understand how it works against you in life. When you recognize that the past can affect the present, you’ll identify how it’s worked against you. Then, you can address the issues and learn to overcome the hard times, allowing you to heal.

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Childhood adversity can lead to challenging adulthood where it seems impossible to get ahead. You’ll always feel like you’re doing all you can and still not living the life you dream of. When this happens, you must find ways to heal from the emotional wounds you suffered as a child.

People who think adversity from their childhood doesn’t affect them as adults will continue to struggle. However, once you acknowledge that it affects your brain and body, you can begin to heal from the adversity. You can start the healing process and reduce physical and mental health problems such as inflammation, depression, addiction, pain, and disease.

How Food Can Help Heal the Brain in Those Who Faced Childhood Adversity

Many people don’t realize how much daily nutrition can affect their brains. You can change your mood, thought process, and rewire neural pathways when you eat the right foods. Your nutritional choices directly affect your brain’s ability to function and heal from harmful childhood trauma.

Foods That Help Heal Childhood Adversity

Some of the foods that help heal the effects of adversity include the following:

1. Plant Foods

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, herbs, and spices are healthy plant foods. These foods are all rich sources of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, protecting the neurons in your brain.

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2. Healthy Fats

Consuming healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, and seeds can help heal the harmful effects of adversity. These fats enhance your brain, promoting daily operating and protection from degenerative diseases. Remember to steer clear of unhealthy fats like fried foods or heavy cream because they can negatively affect you.

3. Fish

Fish contain fatty acids with anti-inflammatory properties. It also improves mood and sleep, helping you recover emotionally and physically. Two servings of fish each week is most beneficial, but any amount will help.

4. Water

While water isn’t a food, it’s still an essential part of a healthy diet. Mild dehydration negatively affects memory and other necessary brain functions. Increasing your water intake by any amount is beneficial, but aim for at least eight cups each day.

5. Foods with High Amounts of Vitamin D

Vitamin D can help you heal from the effects of adversity. Fish tends to have high amounts of vitamin D, but there are plenty of other foods out there, too. You can also consume eggs, turkey with the skin, or try a vitamin D supplement.

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Final Thoughts on Childhood Adversity and Healing the Brain by Good Nutrition

Childhood adversity severely impacts the brain, forcing you to carry the issues into adulthood. While the situation isn’t ideal, you can heal from it and work toward living a positive and healthy life. Changing your nutritional intake can make the difference in rewiring your neural pathways.

Now that you understand how adversity harms the brain, you can start making beneficial changes in your life. Each small step you take contributes to healing the body and brain.

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Sarah Barkley is a lifestyle blogger and freelance writer with a Bachelor's Degree in Literature from Baker College. She is experienced in all things related to parenting, marriage, and life as a millennial parent, but loves to learn new things. She enjoys the research that goes into a strong article, and no topic is off-limits to Sarah. When she isn't writing, she is immersed in a book or watching Gilmore Girls. Sarah loves reading classic novels but also enjoys a good thriller.

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