Stress, anxiety, depression - these are all familiar terms in our modern lifestyle. But why are these conditions so prevalent in society? Where are the seeds of discontent sown?
A new study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, reports that stressful situations experienced in childhood can have a lasting and very negative effect on our lives.
Some stress can be a positive thing; without it we would have no need to adapt or develop survival skills. But chronic stress, like poverty, emotional or physical neglect and abuse, can be toxic to our body and minds, becoming locked away inside us like a slow-acting poison.
In the recent study, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers showed that these kinds of stressors, experienced in early life, might be changing the parts of developing children’s brains responsible for learning, memory and the processing of stress and emotion. These changes may be tied to negative impacts on behavior, health, employment and even the choice of romantic partners later in life.
“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,” says Seth Pollak, co-leader of the study and UW-Madison professor of psychology.
The results of the research could be important for public policy leaders, economists and epidemiologists, among others, says study lead author and recent UW Ph.D. graduate Jamie Hanson.
"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,” says Seth Pollak, co-leader of the study and UW-Madison professor of psychology. “Given how costly these early stressful experiences are for society … unless we understand what part of the brain is affected, we won’t be able to tailor something to do about it,” he says.
For the study, the team recruited 128 children around age 12 who had experienced either physical abuse, neglect early in life or came from low socio-economic status households.
Researchers conducted extensive interviews with the children and their caregivers, documenting behavioral problems and their cumulative life stress. They also took images of the children’s brains, focusing on the hippocampus and amygdala, which are involved in emotion and stress processing. They were compared to similar children from middle-class households who had not been maltreated.
Hanson and the team outlined by hand each child’s hippocampus and amygdala and calculated their volumes. Both structures are very small, especially in children (the word amygdala is Greek for almond, reflecting its size and shape in adults), and Hanson and Pollak say the automated software measurements from other studies may be prone to error.
Indeed, their hand measurements found that children who experienced any of the three types of early life stress had smaller amygdalas than children who had not. Children from low socioeconomic status households and children who had been physically abused also had smaller hippocampal volumes. Putting the same images through automated software showed no effects.
Behavioral problems and increased cumulative life stress were also linked to smaller hippocampus and amygdala volumes.
Why early life stress may lead to smaller brain structures is unknown, says Hanson, now a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University’s Laboratory for NeuroGenetics, but a smaller hippocampus is a demonstrated risk factor for negative outcomes. The amygdala is much less understood and future work will focus on the significance of these volume changes.
“For me, it’s an important reminder that as a society we need to attend to the types of experiences children are having,” Pollak says. “We are shaping the people these individuals will become.”
But the findings, Hanson and Pollak say, are just markers for neurobiological change; a display of the robustness of the human brain, the flexibility of human biology. They aren’t a crystal ball to be used to see the future.
“Just because it’s in the brain doesn’t mean it’s destiny,” says Hanson.
But could our destiny be affected by early trauma? Are there any more esoteric explanations for why these childhood experiences shape our lives?
According to paranormal experts, stress, depression and unhappiness can also attract the unwanted attentions of negative entities, who obtain psychic sustenance from our misery, and consequently provoke situations that will result in negative behavior to provide them with energetic "food". -Trauma early in life, even at birth, can pave the way for the an undesirable passenger to latch onto our energy field and exist as a psychic parasite that could shape the way we act in order to serve their own interests.
The Manchester Paranormal Investigation team from Connecticut often investigate such cases and advise clients that the entities feed on "raw human emotion" such as anger, bitterness, fear, frustration, guilt, jealousy, regret, self-doubt, and sorrow.
The subject has been given further credence by interest from some highly qualified academics: Dr. Bruce Goldberg, an ex-dentist and author of several books, has degrees in Biology and Chemistry and a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology; he has researched the subject of attached entities intensively and has devised a psychological interpretation of the phenomenon. He calls the attached negative entities "sub-personalities" and suggests that they can be residual energies from previous lives or the energies from other separate souls that have joined themselves to our auras. The entities typically produce a type of split personality in the afflicted person, who may begin to act out of character and engage in damaging behaviors, or perhaps even refer to themselves in the third person at times.
Dr. Goldberg suggests that a host of common disorders could be attributed to the effects of "sub-personality" attachments, including autism, anorexia nervosa, bulimia, emotional instability, insomnia, cognitive dysfunction, drug abuse and migraines, and they can also result in abusive relationships and depression.
He says that conventional psycho-therapists can misinterpret and misunderstand these symptoms, but there are other doctors who concur with his beliefs: Dr. Lawrence Wilson, a medical doctor and M.I.T graduate who now specialises in nutritional medicine, also maintains that these entities and their impacts on our lives are definitely real.
His website states that:
"Stress entities ...come in when one is ill, malnourished or hungry, dehydrated, angry, resentful or depressed. This is unfortunate, but whenever the body is out of balance, it is far easier for certain entities to attach themselves to that body. "
Wilson claims to be able to rid the body of entities using a specific nutritional program, whereas Goldberg uses hypnotherapy to rid his patients of unwanted hangers-on. As general advice, Wilson suggests that it is important to "keep yourself well hydrated, well-fed, well-rested and relaxed as much as possible" to deter psychic passengers, though this is sound wisdom for all-round good health.
The Manchester Paranormal Team have found that conventional new-age type rituals such as smudging (burning sage or other herbs) can bring some temporary relief but ultimately only stopping the entities "food source" will send them on their way in search of other victims. They say that recognising negative behavior patterns is the first step in overcoming and breaking them, as well as surrounding yourself with things that bring you happiness.
Whatever the cause, those afflicted by stresses that lead to depression and negative lifestyle choices may find it difficult to shed these patterns of behavior, which have become the norm for them, so they will need support and guidance from family, friends and ideally a practitioner that practises a form of therapy that resonates with their personal belief system. Knowing how powerful early experiences can be should make us all intent on providing our children with the treasured gift of a positive and happy childhood, a gift that will keep on giving for the rest of their lives by encouraging them to focus on, and attract, joy and light rather than misery and pain.
A couple who always look for the joy in life, regardless of the challenges that face them, are Anne and Whitley Strieber. Read this incredibly touching account of their lives, describing a succession of miracles and happiness against all odds - "The Miraculous Journey" .