Early Life Experiences and Anxiety
I think it’s no understatement to say that most people who experience clinical levels of anxiety or depression have had difficulties in their early lives. It doesn’t necessarily mean that one leads to the other, and it doesn’t preclude those with a secure upbringing from having these problems, but we can’t help but notice the strength of association and how early life experiences often figure large in people’s memories.
It’s a fairly complex area to dip into within the confines of a Sharepost but I think it’s possible to outline a few of the key influences thought to play a role. My focus here is on early life experiences but there is increasing evidence that shows how adverse physical and emotional events affecting the mother can also influence the development of their unborn baby.
One of the most researched areas in child-parent relationships is around attachment and/or separation. The unique bond between a mother and her infant is so universal that it has allowed scientists to study everything from rats to primates; the results of which are remarkably similar to humans. From some of these animal studies we know that baby rats separated from their mothers show a higher stress response rate later in life. We know that monkeys separated at birth from their mothers can develop strong bonds with others in a similar situation but remain more anxious and more vulnerable to anxiety and depression later in life.
Anyone who has an interest in child development, either through work or study, will have some familiarity with the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby. It was Bowlby who identified the huge importance of the parent-child relationship in the early years of life and how this goes on to influence future outcomes. Later developments in the field by Allan Schore showed how Bowlby’s ideas could be proved biologically. Schore makes the case that the development of an area of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, depends on a positive emotional experience between parent and child. The prefrontal cortex is involved with the control of pleasure, pain, anger, panic and other emotions and urges. Unlike other organs, which develop automatically, this part of the brain appears to be strongly affected by anxiety and depression. In a healthy nurturing relationship it will grow and form connections with other areas of the brain but where this is lacking the prefrontal cortex will not develop fully. Studies of neglected babies prove they have smaller prefrontal cortexes than normal.*
The sad reality of unstable upbringings is that they frequently repeat themselves from generation to generation and this is something I’ll examine in a later Sharepost.
‘Abnormal brain connectivity in children after early severe socioemotional deprivation: A Diffusion Tensor Imaging Study’, Pediatrics, Vol 117(6) (June 2006), pp. 2093-100.