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Chronic Stress and Mental Illness in Children and Teens

How children and teens get predisposed to mental illness.

In 2014, in a research study led by Daniela Kaufer, an associate professor at the University of California, Berkley, new evidence was discovered on how exposure to chronic stress predisposes the brain to mental illness.

During several experiments conducted on rats, it was discovered that chronic exposure to stress creates an imbalance between myelin production and neuron production in the brain. Myelin is a fatty protective coating that protects axons which deliver information through electrical signals between neurons. The specifics of the imbalance in production is that chronic exposure to stress leads to an over production of myelin and an under production of neurons.

It is important to note that the only part of the brain studied is the hippocampus, which is responsible for the regulation of memory and emotions. The researcher also speculated that given the close distance between the hippocampus and the amygdala and given that the amygdala is the emotional center of the brain, in people who are chronically stressed, there may be a vicious feedback loop between the hippocampus and the amygdala, in which the chronically stressed person often remembers negative memories which are reinforced by negative emotions.

This is important information for parents to know, particularly high conflict divorced parents. Children and adolescents gain their sense of identity from both parents, and during lengthy periods where parents are at war with each other, children and teens often experience chronic stress and some report feelings of pressure from one or both parents to choose a side. The child’s lifestyle is marked by walking on egg shells around one or both parents and this familiarity with living in stress becomes engrained in the child’s psyche.

As you can imagine a child raised with constant exposure to chronic stress will negatively impact the still developing brain of the child. This often leads to mental health issues such as chronic depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. To make things even more complicated, toddlers and children go through stages of pruning in their brain, which leads to certain memories lost to the conscious mind. However just because a child no longer remembers why he or she engages in a certain way of thinking or behaving, does not mean the behavior or mindset comes to a stop. This makes it even more challenging for a teen or adult to engage in any measure of self reflection in order to understand their unhealthy behaviors.

To reiterate, parents who engage in high conflict relationships whether they are together or not, create a chronically stressful experience for their children, which predisposes their children to the development of mental illness in the future.

Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC

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