Mental health problems in adulthood are commonly reported to originate from childhood adversities, but a study has found that people who experienced early life stress may instead develop resilience.
Haeme Park, a senior postdoctoral fellow at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) said not everyone who experiences childhood trauma will develop a higher probability for mental disorders.
“What our research found was that being exposed to trauma in early life can have a marked effect on both brain structure and wellbeing into adulthood, but this does not always lead to an ongoing negative mental health outcome,” she said in a release.
Recently published in Nature’s Translational Psychiatry, the study observed 242 healthy Australian adults and compared those who have and haven’t experienced significant stress in their early life. Then the researchers examined their brains to see how structural networks might differ between resilient and non-resilient people.
The scientists from NeuRA in collaboration with Stanford University found that people who experience stress in childhood displayed increased grey matter—essential for managing memories and emotions—between the prefrontal and parietal regions of the brain.
They saw that stressors gave children opportunities to develop coping mechanisms that help them bend, not break from stressful situations.
“Learning to adopt adaptive emotion regulation strategies was demonstrated to help boost resilience, which is a really encouraging finding,” Park said.
These strategies include reframing a problem or looking at it a different way, as opposed to hiding one’s emotions. The results are consistent with previous studies which show that reframing leads to higher wellbeing and suppression leads to detrimental outcomes such as negative moods.
“We are very excited about these new findings as they help us understand the underlying neurobiological mechanisms of wellbeing and resilience, building on our existing framework and outcomes,” co-author and senior research scientist Justine Gatt said.
Like Epictetus said: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters,” the study reinforces that it’s not about the stress you face, but about how you deal with it.
Their next research goal is to use longitudinal data to explore how people’s levels of wellbeing and distress change over time, how the brain changes in response to these outcomes, and identifying the factors that predict resilience.