Category Archives: Depression And Anxiety Articles

Adverse Effects Of Childhood Trauma On Oxytocin And Our Ability To Love

oxytocin

Childhood Trauma, Oxytocin And Our Ability To Love :

We have already seen from articles previously published on this site that there is a link between childhood trauma and the subsequent experience of depression in later life (e.g. click here).

Furthermore, it is now also known, thanks to neuroscientific research, that those who have suffered childhood trauma and have, subsequently, been diagnosed with a depressive illness are at risk of also having suffering disruption to the part of the brain’s neurobiological system which is responsible for the generation feelings of love and trust.

Oxytocin : The ‘Love Hormone’

More specifically, those who have suffered ongoing childhood trauma are at risk of having lower levels of the neurohormone oxytocin than average. Oxytocin is released into the brain in response to social interaction with others including affectionate physical contact (e.g being hugged, caressed, sex etc) or through warm and loving verbal exchanges that increase emotional bonding and attachment with a trusted other.

 

oxytocin

Possible Positive Effects Of Naturally Raised Levels Of Oxytocin :

If, then, due to our experience of childhood trauma, we have lower than average levels of oxytocin, it can frequently be in our interests to attempt to raise them (I list the potential benefits of doing so below) :

The possible positive effects of raising our levels of oxytocin include :

  • increased levels of social confidence
  • decreased feelings of both emotional and physical pain
  • decreased need for approval from others
  • increased levels of enjoyment derived from social interactions
  • decreased proneness to feelings that life is not worth living
  • increased levels of trust
  • increased motivation to behave ‘pro-socially’
  • increased psychological stability
  • increased ability to relax
  • increased inclination to exercise warm and loving maternal care
  • increased ability to bond with one’s partner
  • increased speed of wound healing
  • increased generosity
  • improved sleep
  • increased resilience to depression

Animal Study Suggesting Anti-Depressant Effects of Oxytocin :

A study (Norman and Karelina, 2010) involving mice with a small injury showed that those left to recover alone were more likely to develop depressive symptoms (e.g. quickly giving up on challenging tasks) than mice who were allowed to recover in pairs; the study concluded that that the paired mice were more resilient to depression because of raised levels of oxytocin induced by the companionship of their co-recovering rodent friend. 

Paradoxical Effects :

Recent research suggests that invariably identifying the release of oxytocin into the brain  as a helpful biological process is an over-generalization.

This is because it has now been found that the release of the neurohormone may be paradoxical in as far as it may also sometimes have negative effects.

For example, it may exacerbate painful memories of previous, dysfunctional relationships (e.g. one study found that bad memories of one’s difficult relationship with one’s mother in early life were actually worsened by increased levels of oxytocin).

Another possible negative effect is that it may make us less accepting of those who are not part of our social group or culture (thus increasing feelings of prejudice against others).

Intensification Of Salience Of Social Interactions :

Bringing together the above information as a whole, it appears that it is too simplistic to regard the function of oxytocin as solely relevant to the accentuation of feelings associated with love.

Instead, it should be seen as relevant to how we perceive the salience of our relationships / social interactions with others – both good and bad.

Natural Ways Of Increasing Our Levels Of Oxytocin :

  • social support
  • hugs
  • massage
  • interacting with friends
  • being part of a sports team
  • owning a dog
  • just being around other people even if not directly interacting with them

 

RESOURCE :

Overcome Shyness and Social Anxiety | Self Hypnosis Downloads

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

Neurogenic Tremors : Why Shaking With Fear Is Good For Us

neurogenic tremors

Recent research has served to emphasize the crucial relevance of the body when considering both how severe traumatic experiences can adversely affect us AND how we can treat such adverse effects (including posttraumatic stress disorder).

One very important finding in relation to this is that traumatic experiences can lead to chronic excess tension in the skeletal muscles. And, because the body and the mind are so intimately connected, this, in turn, can make us hypersensitive to stress to such a degree that we may find even very minor stressors create in us feelings of overwhelming anxiety.

Indeed, as the role of the body in how traumatic experiences affect us (especially if we are suffering from PTSD) becomes better understood there is a concomitant increase in interest in supplementing psychological therapies to treat responses to trauma with somatic (physical) therapies.

Neurogenic Tremors :

Tremors are a natural, automatic / instinctual response to anxiety, fear, panic attacks, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or any shock to the nervous system. This response has evolved because, when the nervous system becomes out of balance, it helps to return the body and emotions back into a state of equilibrium; it achieves this by reducing our level of arousal and shutting down the ‘fight or flight’response.

Furthermore, tremors are a way of dissipating the excess energy residing in the body that accumulated during the state of high arousal. In this way, tremors can help us escape from the unpleasant symptoms (both physical and mental) that may have arisen due to trauma.

neurogenic tremors

In technical terms, tremors help to reduce over-activity in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis ( a complex neuroendocrine system whose functions include regulating our response to stress, our emotions and bodily, energy storage and release) and are called neurogenic tremors. 

Applications To Therapy :

Tremors (or shaking or trembling) help to deactivate and calm the nervous system. Such deactivation signals to the brain that danger and threat has passed ; this, in turn, allows us to relax again : our muscles are able to release the excess of energy they have stored up whilst in fight / flight mode which, in turn, permits chronic tension patterns that have developed in the body to be eradicated.

People who have suffered trauma and have developed PTSD have often been ‘locked into’ the fight/flight response for a protracted period of time and have suppressed their feelings of anxiety (often with the ‘help’ of alcohol or drugs) because they believe, on a conscious or unconscious level, that showing and expressing one’s feelings ‘a sign of weakness.’

And, because of this erroneous belief, such individuals tend to be averse to physical displays of distress (such as trembling and crying). The price to be paid for such suppression is that the excess energy stored in the body becomes trapped, ensuring that the person habitually remains in an uncomfortable state of bodily tension and associated mental distress.

Based on the ideas presented above, Dr Peter Levine, a leading expert on the effects of trauma, has developed a therapy that he has called somatic experiencing which helps the client to release the pernicious, pent-up energy that was generated by their traumatic experience and, thus, alleviate their physical and mental suffering incurred.

eBook :

Above eBook now available from Amazon for instant download. Click here for further details.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

3 Core Unmet Needs Underlying Emotional Pain

3 core unmet needs underlying emotional pain

Core Unmet Needs

Many of us who have suffered significant childhood trauma experience intense emotional pain as adults; such pain my present itself as severe anxiety, depression or anger, for example.

According to Timulak et al., 2012, three core unmet needs underlie such emotional suffering; these are :

  • unmet needs for safety and security
  • unmet needs for love and meaningful connection to others
  • unmet needs for acceptance, validation and recognition by others 

Sadly, such unmet needs frequently stem from growing up in a  dysfunctional family. (To read my previously published article : Dysfunctional Families : Types And Effects, click here).

 

Core Feelings Associated With Core Unmet Needs :

Timulak elaborates on the above by stating that these three core unmet needs are associated with corresponding core feelings as shown below :

  • unmet needs for safety and security are associated with feelings of fear and insecurity
  • unmet needs for love and meaningful connection to others are associated with feelings of sadness and loneliness
  • unmet needs for acceptance, validation and recognition by others are associated with feelings of shame and worthlessness

emotional pain

Secondary Distress And Obscured Core Unmet Needs And Feelings :

Timulak also alerts us to the fact that when individuals suffering from emotional pain present themselves to therapists, their core unmet needs and corresponding core feelings may be obscured and concealed because these are overlayed by surface, ‘secondary distress’ (i.e. distressing, surface feelings that have their roots in the underlying core unmet needs and associated core feelings).

Examples of such ‘secondary distress’ / ‘surface feelings’, Timulak states, include :

  • feelings of helplessness
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • feelings of depression
  • feelings of anger
  • feelings of anxiety
  • somatisation (e.g. insomnia, physical tension, exhaustion, teeth grinding, stomach pains, chest pains, loss of appetite, headaches, dizziness etc.)

Conclusion :

It is important for patients and therapists to consider the possible core issues that may lie beneath adverse surface feelings (secondary distress). Often, these core issues will have their roots in childhood trauma.

eBook :

childhood trauma and depression

Above eBook now available for immediate download from Amazon. Click here for further details or to view other titles.

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

Factors That Put The Child’s Mental Health At Risk

factors that put the child's mental health at risk

The Risk And Resilience Model :

According to the Risk And Resilience Model (Pearce , 1993) there exist three categories of factors that put the child’s mental health at risk. These are as follows :

  1. Factors relating to the child’s / young person’s environment
  2. Factors relating to the child’s / young person’s family
  3. Factors relating to the child / young person himself / herself

child mental health risk factors

The List Of Risk Factors (Split Into The Three Categories Given Above) :

Let’s look at each of these three categories of factors in turn :

  1. Factors relating to the child’s / young person’s environment :

These include the following :

  • living in a violent community
  • socioeconomic deprivation
  • living in an environment in which one is discriminated against
  • homelessness
  • living in the environment as a refugee or asylum seeker
  • disaster
  • other significant, adverse life event

 2. Factors relating to the child’s / young person’s family :

    3. Factors relating to the child / young person himself / herself :

  • low I.Q. / learning difficulties
  • genetic influences
  • temperamental difficulties
  • communication difficulties
  • specific developmental delay
  • chronic physical illness
  • gender identity conflict
  • low self-esteem
  • academic failure
  • poor school attendance
  • neurological disorder

Resilience : Factors That Help To Protect A Child / Young Person From Becoming Mentally Ill :

Pearce’s model also includes factors that help to protect a child / young person from becoming mentally ill which he refers to as RESILIENCE FACTORS ; I list these below :

  • social skills
  • self-esteem
  • familial compassion and warmth
  • a stable family environment
  • a skill or talent
  • a social support system that encourages personal development and coping skills

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

Antidepressants : Are Those Who Experienced Early Life Trauma Less Responsive To Them?

MDD, early life-trauma and antidepressants

Antidepressants And Childhood Trauma :

As part of the international Study to Predict Optimized Treatment for Depression (iSPOT-D) involving over one thousand individuals who had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD). research was undertaken to compare the prevalence of histories of early childhood trauma in this group with the same prevalence in  a group of ‘healthy’ controls (this latter group was comprised of 336 matched individuals).

antidepressants and childhood trauma

Results :

Depressed individuals more likely to have suffered early-life stress (see below)

When the two groups were compared, it was found that :

  • In the group of individuals who had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD), 62.5% had suffered more than two traumatic events before the age of 18.
  • In the group of ‘healthy’ individuals, 28.4% had suffered more than two traumatic events before the age of 18.

(The number of traumatic events each individual was determined to have suffered before the age of 18 was defined with reference to Early-Life Stress Questionnaire.)

Another part of the study examined how the individuals suffering from major depressive disorder (MDD) responded to antidepressant treatment (the treatment period was eight weeks and individuals were treated with one of three antidepressants : escitalopram, sertraline or venlafaxine).

Results :

It was found that individuals who had histories of abuse (physical, sexual or emotional), particularly if this abuse occurred before the age of 7 years, had an impaired response to all three (see above) antidepressants used in the study.

Those individuals who had suffered abuse (physical, sexual or emotional) between the ages of 4 years and 7 years and were treated with sertraline (see above) had the poorest of all response to the treatment.

Conclusion :

This study suggests that individuals who have suffered significant levels of early-life stress may be less likely to respond positively to treatment with antidepressants than those who have not. However, further research is necessary to cast more light upon this apparently inverted relationship between the two variables.

eBook :

childhood trauma and depression

Above eBook now available for instant download from Amazon. Click here for further details.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

NB :  The above is for information only. Always consult an appropriately qualified professional when making decisions relating to medication.

 

Deep Feelings Of Shame Resulting From Emotionally Impoverished Relationships With Parents

shame due to dysregulating oyjers

According to DeYoung, author of the excellent book : ‘Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame : A Relational / Neurobiological Approach‘, the experience of shame comes about as a result of dysfunctional relationships with other people (in particular, of course, with our parents when we are growing up) who are of emotional importance to us as opposed to affecting us as isolated, independent individuals. Because of this, DeYoung describes the experience of shame as being RELATIONAL (i.e. linked to the quality of our relationships with others who are important to us).

More specifically, DeYoung proposes that we can develop a deep and pervasive sense of shame in early life when ‘we experience our felt sense of self disintegrating in relation to a dysregulating other.’

What Is Meant By A Dysregulating Other?

According to DeYoung, a ‘dysregulating other’ is :

‘A person who fails to provide an emotional connection, responsiveness and understanding of what another needs in order to be in order to be well and whole.’

And, of course, if this ‘dysregulating other’ is a parent when we are very young and that parent behaves in a chronic and consistently ‘dysregulating’ way towards us, then we are especially likely to grow up into adults with a deep, pervasive and abiding sense of shame.

DeYoung also states that a dysregulating other (who, as already stated, is important to us, especially a parent) is someone we ‘want to trust‘ and, indeed, ‘should be able to trust‘, but, when we turn to that person because we are in emotional distress and need to be comforted and soothed, the way the dysregulating other responds to us / fails to respond to us leaves us feeling WORSE STILL. This is because the dysregulating other is emotionally misattuned to / disconnected from us ; the relationship is emotionally impoverished.

cause of shame

In turn, this, according to  DeYoung, can lead to us developing ‘core feelings of shame‘ as we conclude, ‘consciously or unconsciously, that there is something wrong with our neediness and that we are somehow ‘bad’ because of the painful and troubling nature of our ongoing interactions (or lack thereof) with this dysregulating other.

However, we may not be consciously aware (see above) of the fact that such feelings of shame are directly attributable to our early relationships with our parents / important others and may, therefore, erroneously attribute these profound feelings of  shame to factors that, in truth, are NOT their primary source of origin (such as our physical appearance, sexuality, perceived lack of intelligence /abilities, social status or a vast array of other factors).

What Is Meant By A Sense Of Self Disintegration?

DeYoung states that such emotionally impoverished interactions with parents / important others, when sustained and chronic, make us feel that our sense of self is disintegrating. 

This sense of disintegration can include feeling of our ‘self’ being  ‘shattered,’ ‘incoherent’ ‘blank’, ‘fragmented‘, and, furthermore, can make us vulnerable to feelings of deep humiliation (even in response to small, objectively trivial events), under threat of ‘psychological annihilation’ or induce strong desires in us, metaphorically, to be ‘swallowed up by the ground’ or ‘disappear.’

In order to emphasize just how powerful the effects of shame can be, DeYoung offers the extreme example of the Japanese suicide ritual of hari-kiri which used to be carried out by warriors who had been ‘disgraced.’

RESOURCES :

  • DeYoung’s Book / eBook (Click on book’s title below) :

Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach

 

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

Trauma And Persistent ‘Low Mood’ (Dysthymia) In Children

dysthymia in children

How Does Dysthymia Differ From Major Depression?

Children who experience significant and protracted trauma and/or stress during childhood are at increased risk of developing a condition known as dysthymia, which is sometimes described as a less severe/dramatic version of major depression.

Because its symptoms tend not to be as obvious as those of major depression (for example, a young person suffering from it may exhibit the symptom of frequent irritability but parents may dismiss this as ‘typical teenage touchiness’) this does NOT mean that it is necessarily less dangerous.

Whilst dysthymia is uncommon in very young children, some studies suggest that it can occur in children as young as five years old.

In the title of this article I have described dysthymia as ‘persistent low mood’. To elaborate upon this definition,  adjectives such as ‘gloomy’, ‘pessimistic’ and ‘down’ can be used to describe the dysthymic young person. Furthermore, children suffering from dysthymia are very frequently preoccupied with feelings of being ‘left out‘ by or unaccepted/disliked/unloved by others. On top of this, such individuals also tend to feelinferior to others and that they don’t ‘measure up’ to their peers in various definable – and more nebulous, indefinable – ways. (As I finish writing this paragraph, I realize it is an accurate description of how I felt about myself as a young person).

dysthymia in children

A Study Into How The Symptoms Of Dysthymia Differ From Symptoms Of Major Depression In Children :

A study conducted by Kovacs et al., (1994) examined how symptoms of dysthymia in children differed from symptoms of major depression in children. The major findings of the study were as follows :

Those children suffering from dysthymia, compared to those suffering from major depression, were, on average :

  • younger
  • less likely to suffer from disturbed sleep (22% versus 62%)
  • less likely to suffer from appetite disturbance (6% versus 47%)
  • less likely to suffer from severe loss of ability to feel pleasure – this is a condition that is clinically known as ‘anhedonia‘ (6% versus 71%)
  • about equally likely to suffer from depressed/sad mood (91% versus 80%)
  • about equally likely to feel unloved (55% versus 48%)
  • about equally likely to feel friendless (41% versus 40%)

Which Factors Increase An Individual’s Risk Of Developing Dysthymia?

Risk factors that increase a young person’s chances of developing the condition of dysthymia include the following :

  • significant trauma / stress
  • having a first-degree relative (mother, father, sibling) who suffers from a depressive disorder
  • having a history of other psychiatric conditions

What Problems Are Associated With Dysthymia?

I said at the beginning of this article that dysthymia can be just as dangerous as major-depression. This is because it can lead to myriad problems for the young person such as :

In the same study (Kovacs et al.) referred to above, more than two-thirds of the total number (fifty-five) of young people suffering from dysthymia went on to develop more severe symptoms of depression or full-blown major depression (in both cases without a complete absence of symptoms in between). In the group of young people who went on to develop major depression, the time at which they were most likely to do so was 2-3 years after the initial onset of dysthymic disorder.

It has, therefore, been theorized that ‘dysthymic disorder’ may, in fact, not be a separate and distinct mood disorder in its own right, but, rather, a subtype, or precursor, other mood disorders.

Treatment Of Dysthymia:

If a young person is suffering from dysthymia, early identification of the disorder and early therapeutic intervention is vital to help reduce the risk that the condition deteriorates or that the young person develops even more serious psychiatric conditions. Also, the level of stress that the young person is exposed to should be reduced as far as possible. Furthermore, the young person should be given as much social support as necessary.

USEFUL LINK :
Youngminds.org

eBook :

Above eBook now available on Amazon for immediate download. Click here for further information.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

 

 

What Is ‘The Trauma Model’ Of Mental Disorders?

trauma model of mental disorders

The Trauma Model Of Mental Disorders :

According to the trauma model of mental disorders (also sometimes referred to as the trauma model of psychopathology), many professionals involved with the treatment of psychiatric disorders (such as psychiatrists) have been excessively preoccupied by the medical model of mental disorders (the medical model stresses the importance of physical factors that may underlie mental disorders such as a person’s genes and/or neurochemistry ; in line with this hypothesis, those who adhere to the medical model of mental disorders focus primarily on psychoactive medication – such as anti-depressants and major tranquilizers – or physical therapies – such as electro-convulsive therapy – as primary treatment choices) at the expense of taking into account the individual’s history of traumatic experience, especially severe and protracted trauma in early childhood.

According to the trauma model, too, significant problems relating to bonding and to the building a healthy, loving, nurturing, dependable relationship between the child and primary caregiver (most frequently the mother) are particularly predictive of such a child developing serious mental health difficulties in later life. However, childhood trauma leading to psychiatric problems in later can also take the form of physical, sexual and emotional abuse (the potentially catastrophic effects of significant and protracted emotional abuse have only recently started to be fully understood).

Significant Psychologists / Psychiatrists Who Have Adopted A Trauma Model Perspective Of Mental Disorders (Past And Present) :

Past psychologists / psychiatrists who have adhered to the trauma model of mental disorders include Arieti, Freud, Lidz, Bowlby, R.D. Laing and Colin Ross (see below for further, brief details) :

 

  • Arieti (1914-1981) advocated the treatment of those suffering from schizophrenia using psychotherapy
  • Freud’s (1856-1939) enormously influential work can be seen as representing the start of the academic discipline of child psychology and compelled society to acknowledge the profound relationship between a person’s childhood experiences and his/her mental health in later life.
  • Lidz (1910-2001) emphasized the severe psychological damage parents who ‘constantly undermine the child’s conception of himself’ do to their off-spring; he considered such treatment of the child by the parents as so serious because such psychological abuse can constitute a sustained and catastrophic attack on his (the child’s) ‘inner self’, which, in turn, so Lintz proposed, could lead to the disintegration of the child’s personality and the subsequent development of schizophrenia.
  • Bowlby (1907-1990) theorized that when the primary carer fails to healthily, emotionally bond (or, in Bowlby’s terminology attach‘) with the baby / young child the latter is put at high risk of developing mental health problems in later life.
  • R.D. Laing (1927-1989) proposed that schizophrenia is the result of the individual who develops it having grown up in a severely dysfunctional family.
  • Colin Ross (contemporary  psychiatrist) the most recent, significant proponent of the trauma model, emphasizes the harm done by abusive parenting by drawing attention to the fact the perpetrators of the abuse are the very people to whom the ‘child had to attach for survival.’ And he also states : ‘the basic conflict, the deepest pain, and the deepest source of symptoms is the fact that mom and dad’s behavior hurts, did not fit together, and did not make sense.’

eBook :

 

effects of childhood trauma ebook

Above eBook, The Devastating Effects Of Childhood Trauma, now available on Amazon for instant download. Click here for further information.

David Hosier BSc ; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

 

 

Psychotic Depression, Schizophrenia And Childhood Trauma Sub-Types

childhood trauma, schizophrenia and psychotic depression

Sub-Types Of Childhood Trauma :

As we have seen from other articles I have published on this site, childhood trauma can be split into 4 main sub-types : emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect.

In this article, I briefly describe some of the main research findings in regard to the association between childhood trauma and risk of suffering from psychosis as an adult.

More specifically, I will examine which specific sub-types of childhood trauma may particularly increase an individual’s risk of developing psychosis as an adult, and if specific sub-types of childhood trauma are linked to increased risk of developing specific types of psychotic disorder as an adult and, if so, which specific types of psychotic disorder.

Study That Suggests Link Between Childhood Trauma And The Later Development Of Psychotic Depression :

A study carried out by Read et al. found that those individuals who had suffered from childhood trauma were more likely to have suffered from psychotic depression as adults. (Psychotic depression is similar to ‘ordinary’ major depression only there are additional symptoms of a psychotic nature – delusions, hallucinations and psychomotor agitation or psychomotor retardation).

More specifically, those who had experienced physical abuse or sexual abuse were found to have been particularly likely to have developed a psychotic depression later in life. (Of those in the study who had suffered from psychotic depression as adults, 59% had suffered physical abuse as children and 63% had suffered sexual abuse.)

childhood trauma, schizophrenia, psychotic depression

Studies That Suggests Link Between Childhood Trauma And The Later Development Of Schizophrenia :

A study (Compton et al) found that of those who had been sexually abused as children and of those who had been physically abused as children, 50% and 61% respectively developed schizophrenia-spectrum disorders later in life.

Another study (Rubins et al) found evidence suggesting that whilst sexual abuse in childhood is associated with the later development of depression and schizophrenia, physical abuse during childhood is associated with the later development of schizophrenia’ alone.

Finally, a study by Spence et al found that both physical and sexual abuse were associated with the later development of schizophrenia and, of these two associations, the association between physical abuse and the later development of schizophrenia was the strongest.

Type Of Psychotic Symptoms :

Studies (e.g. Read, 2008) that have focused on the specific psychotic symptoms suffered by those who develop a psychotic illness AND have a history of childhood trauma have found that the most common are AUDITORY HALLUCINATIONS and PARANOIA.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSC; PGDE(FAHE)

 

Possible Long-Term Effects Of Highly Stressed Mothers On Infants

possible effects of stressed mothers on infants

Mothers who are suffering severe and protracted stress (e.g. due to an anxiety disorder) for a significant period of time whilst bringing up their infants are likely to be less attentive to their off-spring than are mothers who are mentally healthy.

In such a deprived environment, the part of the infant’s neuroendocrine system known as the HYPOTHALAMIC-PITUITARY-ADRENAL (HPA) AXIS is likely to be repeatedly activated during this critical part of his/her development due to a variety of stressors (e.g. by sensing the mother’s anxiety, not being sufficiently soothed when in distress etc).

WHAT IS THE HYPOTHALAMIC-PITUITARY-ADRENAL (HPA) AXIS?

The HYPOTHALAMIC-PITUITARY-ADRENAL (HPA)  AXIS is a major part of the neuroendocrine system that controls the infant’s stress response. The repeated activation the HPA axis undergoes over time, due to the stressed mother’s inattentiveness (this is not to say, of course, all stressed mothers are inattentive ; it only applies to mothers who are so severely stressed that it significantly impairs their maternal functioning), has the effect of signalling to the infant that s/he is growing up in a dangerous environment.

Under such conditions, the HPA axis can become highly sensitized to both real and perceived threats. In other words, the infant’s fear response becomes very easily triggered due to the HPA axis becoming oversensitive / over-reactive.

Whilst this exaggerated fear response acquired during infancy would have been of evolutionary adaptive value to the future lives (i.e. childhood and adulthood) of our ancestors living in physically dangerous environments, it has no such adaptive value as far as the modern-day infant’s future life is concerned ; indeed, it can lead to serious problems as we shall see below.

HPA axis

ABOVE : The components of the HPA axis : the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland and the adrenal cortex ; their interaction controls the fear-response.

WHAT ARE THE POSSIBLE ADVERSE EFFECTS OF HAVING AN OVER-SENSITIVE HYPOTHALAMIC-PITUITARY-ADRENAL (HPA) AXIS?

Having an HPA axis that is, in effect, constantly on red-alert, may have myriad adverse, long-term effects. These include :

  • A damaged immune system (leading to an increase in the likelihood of suffering from a variety of diseases, including cancer).
  • Impairment to cognitive functioning (e.g. loss of neurons in the hippocampus (a region of the brain involved with memory function)
  • Increased likelihood of psychiatric conditions (e.g. anxiety and depression)
  • Perceiving danger to exist where, objectively, it does not / over-estimating risks/dangers
  • Less ‘mental energy’ (being constantly fearful and anxious is debilitating, demoralizing and enervating) for positive activities (e.g. play, creativity and building healthy relationships)

Important note : Although the damage done to the infant happens very early in life, many of the problems that such damage results in may not become apparent until very much later in, and, without effective therapeutic intervention, may even persist throughout the lifetime.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).