Psychotherapy and Neuroscience

Childhood Stress Histories

Interviewing a group of individuals who share similar behavioral characteristics or conditions is a common method to help one to understand commonalties between individuals. Adults with major depressive disorder report chronic responses to stress, such as anxiety or substance abuse (Hayden & Klein, 2001), in response to histories of severe childhood physical abuse (Weiss et al., 1999; Brodsky et al., 2001; Jaffe et al., 2002; Harkness and Monroe, 2002), sexual abuse (Hayden and Klein, 2001; Harkness and Monroe, 2002), caregiver antipathy and neglect and poor maternal and paternal relationships (Hayden & Klein, 2001). Childhood sexual abuse along with paternal and marital violence, maternal indifference and a general sense of lack of personal safety have all been associated with the later development of depressive symptoms along with concurrent borderline personality characteristics of avoidance, self-defeating tendencies, and parasuicidal and self-injurious behaviors (Gladstone et al., 1999). In addition, adults with later bipolar disorder (Leverich et al., 2002) and borderline personality disorder (Byrne et al., 1990) present childhood histories of both physical and sexual abuses. Adult and adolescent antisocial personality disorder is a condition that has also been associated with histories of severe physical abuse and tendencies for dissociation (Lewis et al., 1997) and paranoid ideation (Lewis et al., 1988), respectively. In a longitudinal study childhood victimization and histories of abuse and neglect are found to be predictors of later lifetime symptoms of antisocial personality disorder (Luntz and Widom, 1994). Adults who share neurobiological markers and symptoms for affective and personality disorders tend to share adaptations to stressful histories of childhood abuse and neglect over time and in their lifetime.

Histories of childhood adversity and physical abuse seem to underlie the later development of future psychiatric conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Bremner et al., 1993). Genes probably dictate how the response to stress will later be expressed. Twin studies (Stein et al., 2002) have demonstrated that there is a significant variance in PTS symptom expression, as some individuals from twin pairs go on to develop PTS symptoms and others do not. Considering that monozygotic twins are genetically comparable it is likely that the variance in PTS symptom expression is due to each individual twin’s responses to the frequency and degree of perceived stress throughout one’s life at any point in time. It cannot be understated enough stressful adaptations to childhood adversity occur during a time in an individual’s life when the brain and CNS is undergoing critical, rapid neural growth and expression.


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