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VOL. 127 | NO. 34 | Monday, February 20, 2012

Advocate Warns About Stress in Childhood

By Aisling Maki

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High levels of stress during childhood may play a significant role in disease causation later in life.

Robin Karr-Morse, author of “Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence” and her new book, “Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease,” discussed the effects of what’s called toxic stress during a lecture Thursday, Feb. 16, at the University Center on the University of Memphis campus.

Karr-Morse, an Oregon-based child advocate and family therapist, traveled to Memphis at the invitation of The Urban Child Institute. The nonprofit organization, at 600 Jefferson Ave., consists of a coalition of community researchers, strategists and practitioners dedicated to the well-being of young children in Memphis and Shelby County.

Karr-Morse discussed the research, risks and results of how toxic stress triggers physical and mental health issues that have created a major public health crisis locally and nationally.

In “Scared Sick,” she connects psychology, neurobiology, endocrinology, immunology and genetics to demonstrate how chronic fear in infancy and early childhood lies at the root of many common diseases in adulthood.

Research shows that many individuals who experience trauma, such as abuse, in the first few years of life may not necessarily grow up to become violent, but instead may grow up to be chronically ill. Karr-Morse says constant negative emotions are likely to increase the likelihood of those individuals developing illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, hypertension and Type II diabetes.

Many chronic visitors to emergency rooms have deep-seated emotional issues, and were often the victims of abuse, neglect, dysfunction, abandonment, or early exposure to sex, drugs and alcohol.

One of the most revelatory parts of Karr-Morse’s lecture is the theory that genes may not play as large a role as is thought in the causation of chronic disease. Another culprit in the development of chronic illness may be a person’s emotional responses to stress, behaviors typically learned from their families.

“In a nutshell, recent increased knowledge in biology validates what many of us have known for a long time,” Karr-Morse said. “That what happens to us emotionally happens to us physically. Our bodies are affected. Positive emotions – love, gratitude, feelings of connection and attachment to people, a sense of achievement or accomplishment – these are healthy and healing experiences that help mitigate against disease.

“But the opposite is also true; chronic negative emotionality – especially fear, but also very early chronic experiences of frustration, rage, shame and grief – can catalyze whatever genetic proclivities we may have for disease. For one of us that could be heart disease, for another it could be cancer, for another it could be arthritis and so forth.”

Stress is an inevitable part of life, and parents and caregivers are responsible for helping children understand how to deal with stress in healthy and productive ways.

Problems arise, however, when stress becomes persistent and intense and continues for a prolonged period of time, particularly in the first few years of life when a child’s brain is developing and circuits are especially susceptible to harm.

“At a time when we’ve not yet learned language to record our thoughts, the experience registers in the brain not primarily as a conscious, rational language-based experience in conscious verbal memory, but rather it registers as a feeling … registered unconsciously in the lower brain,” Karr-Morse said. “Stored as a sensation, there are no words physically attached. Such experiences can be difficult to access in traditional talk therapy, let alone in a medical office.”

Toxic stress is especially common for children living in families where abuse, neglect and dysfunction are part of daily life. And it’s not uncommon for those children to suffer from addictions, depression and anxiety, or to experience trouble with the law as they grow older.

In Memphis – where about half of all children born each year are born into poverty – many factors that make for hostile environments for early childhood development are closely associated with growing up poor.

However, middle-class individuals who experience trauma – such as divorce or the loss of a parent – often, too, become chronically ill, addicted to substances, or suffer from depression.

Karr-Morse said the U.S. lags significantly behind other Western countries in terms of policies that alleviate stress and support the early parent-child bond.

The availability of things such as supportive prenatal care – especially for mothers with a history of depression – subsidized parental leave, home visits from nurses, recognizing domestic violence and maternal depression, and the availability of quality childcare for working mothers are all things that can help reduce the instances of early childhood trauma that can later manifest as physical illness.

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