The Athlete's Way

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Parental Warmth Is Crucial for a Child’s Well-Being

Toxic childhood stress alters neural responses linked to illness in adulthood.

We all need love and affection. Were your parents warm and affectionate when you were growing up, or did you grow up in an abusive environment? If you are a parent — how much warmth and affection do you show your kids on a daily basis?

Like most parents – as the father of a 6 year old – it is common sense for me to want to create the most loving and non-toxic environment for my daughter. That said, scientific studies are always a helpful reaffirmation of how important it is to practice loving-kindness and ‘shower the people you love with love.’

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A new study from UCLA suggests that a loving parental figure may alter neural circuits in children that could influence health throughout a lifespan. On the flip side, the negative impact of childhood abuse or lack of parental affection take a mental and physical toll can also last a lifetime. Childhood neglect increases adult risk for morbidity and mortality.

The September 2013 study, titled “Childhood Abuse, Parental Warmth, and Adult Multisystem Biological Risk in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study” is published online by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This study is the first time researchers have examined the effects of abuse and lack of parental affection across the human body's entire regulatory system, and found a strong biological link between negative early life experiences and poor health later in life.

"Our findings suggest that there may be a way to reduce the impact abuse has, at least in terms of physical health," said Judith E. Carroll, a research scientist at the Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology at UCLA, and the study's lead author. "If the child has love from parental figures they may be more protected from the impact of abuse on adult biological risk for health problems than those who don't have that loving adult in their life."

Many previous reports on childhood abuse or neglect have found a link between a child’s psychological and physical well-being. For instance, "toxic" childhood stress has been linked to elevated cholesterol, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and other physical conditions posing a significant health risk. The researchers suggest that toxic childhood stress alters neural responses to stress, boosting the emotional and physical arousal to threat and making it more difficult for that reaction to be shut off.

The researchers say, “It is well recognized that providing children in adverse circumstances with a nurturing relationship is beneficial for their overall wellbeing. Our findings suggest that a loving relationship may also prevent the rise in biomarkers indicative of disease risk across numerous physiological systems, impacting adverse health outcomes decades later.”

Banish: Shame, Humiliation, and Name Calling

In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Brené Brown talks about the difference between shame and humiliation and the importance of never calling people names. Please take 3-minutes to watch this video clip in which Brené Brown gives examples of how teachers, parents, and care givers often use shame as a tool to manage child behavior.

Shame is especially toxic because children keep silent about the abuse based on a false belief that the derogatory labels or comments are true. If a child is taught that being bullied or humiliated by a grown up or peer is unacceptable he or she is more likely to speak up and dismantle the neural circuits of abuse.

Shame cannot survive in a loving and compassionate brain. Through mindfulness training and other types of therapy, I believe that it is possible for people at any age to re-shape the neural circuitry of childhood abuse through neuroplasicity.

We all have baggage and scars from our past. Instead of feeling like ‘damaged goods’ because you had an abusive childhood you can begin to take proactive steps to undo damage at a neural level and improve your health in the process. Like most people I know, I had my fair share of abuse and neglect growing up. Running has always been a reliable way to fortify my resilience and re-wire my mind to be more optimistic and compassionate. If you feel less-than for whatever reason, I highly recommend kick-starting a workout regimen and rigorous mindfulness training. 

Conclusion: Loving-Kindness is Critical at Every Stage of Life

The UCLA findings suggest that parental warmth and affection protect one against the harmful effects of toxic childhood stress. Although the lingering effects of childhood abuse can be linked to age-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease — I believe that it is possible for us to undo some of this damage as adults through lifestyle choices and changes in mindset and behavior.

"It is our hope that this will encourage public policy support for early interventions," Judith E. Carroll concludes. "If we intervene early in risky families and at places that provide care for children by educating and training parents, teachers, and other caregivers in how to provide a loving and nurturing environment, we may also improve the long term health trajectories of those kids."

If you’d like to read more on these topics please check out my Psychology Today Blogs: "The Neuroscience of Calming a Baby", "Compassion Can Be Trained", "The Power of Vulnerability", "Mindfulness Made Simple", "How Does Meditation Reduce Anxiety at a Neural Level?" and "Mindfulness Training and the Compassionate Brain."

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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