Childhood Insecurity Affects How You Deal With Adult Stress

screen-shot-2016-09-12-at-5-44-18-pmSeptember 20, 2016

This new study adds to the knowledge that child relationships have profound and lasting impact on a range of adult experiences, including personality traits, the potential for positive engagement with others; or for emotional disturbance. This study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that insecurity in childhood makes it harder to deal with stressful experiences as an adult. That’s often visible in how individuals respond very differently to situations that might be challenging or difficult in some way.

I think the upshot of this study, described below, adds to the growing knowledge that childhood experiences have lasting impact; a long “tail” throughout many dimensions of adult life. In this case, its impact is visible when dealing with potentially anxious or stressful situations.

The key challenge is determining what can heal the impact of the past and enable new growth.

In this summary of the current study, Christine Heinisch, one of the authors, points out that, “We know from other studies that our history of attachment directly influences how we act in social situations, but what about reaction to a neutral stimulus under emotional conditions?”

She offers the example of when a car approaches a traffic light. Under neutral conditions, it is easy for the driver to follow the signal. But what happens under emotional conditions?

“Usually, people tend to make more errors, like stopping too late or even driving through when the traffic light is red. Sometimes they stop although the light is still green,” she explains.

But not everyone’s actions are impacted by emotions to the same extent. Some of us had emotionally responsive caregivers or parents in childhood, while others didn’t.

Heinisch added, “We expected those having problems with emotional regulation to make more errors in performing a task – and one significant variable influencing this is our attachment experience.”

To test this theory, the researches conducted a study on adult subjects with different childhood caregiver experiences. Subjects in the study performed a task of identifying a target letter from among a series of flashing letters. This task was administered under conditions that evoked a positive, neutral, or negative emotional state. The researchers then assessed task performance and analyzed EEG recordings of brain function in their subjects.

The results revealed that subjects who did not have emotionally responsive caregivers in childhood – reflecting insecure attachment — had more trouble performing under emotionally negative conditions than the others, who reflected more secure attachment. They also had lower brain activity in response to the target letter under negative conditions than secure-attached subjects.

The lower task performance correlated with inefficient strategies for emotional regulation seen in insecure-attached adults. This could mean that a greater share of cognitive resources was allocated for regulating emotions, and consequently, less was available for performing the task.

There are limitations to the study, of course, and the researchers plan to explore the findings in more real-life situations.

Credit: Frontiers Science