While many recognize the vulnerability of children, there is still a pervasive belief that their resilience helps them to move beyond what they experience. The opposite is actually true, as the imprints that childhood trauma can have on brain functioning and belief systems can last throughout the lifetime. Early Life Stress (ELS) events and experiences of stressors and abuse are a key factor to childhood development of mental illnesses that often continue to plague these children through adulthood.
What Are Early Life Stress Events?
Children are a particularly vulnerable population in that they can be exposed to any number of distressing and challenging environments, people, and situations that they do not have control over. These experiences, often referred to as Early Life Stress experiences, are “comprised of various forms of child abuse and neglect ” such as “exposure in childhood to maltreatment, separation from parents or parental divorce, death of a family member, and poverty,” among other possible experiences .”
Extensive research has been conducted on the dangers these experiences pose for the psychological and neurological development of children. For example, ELS has “been shown to exert profound short- and long-term effects on human physiology both in the central nervous system (CNS) and peripherally .” They are also proven to be “associated with an increased risk of adulthood anxiety as well as a number of other psychiatric problems, including depression, substance use disorders, personality disorders, psychosis, and suicidality .”
Eating Disorders and ELS Experiences
Eating disorders are found to be associated with all of the disorders mentioned above as well as exposure to ELS events. This is due to many factors, one of which might be the inflammatory changes that ELS situations cause in the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, the part of the brain involved in regulating food intake .
Behaviorally, the increased mental and emotional distress caused by ELS experiences often takes a toll on children as they do not have the emotional skills and awareness to cope effectively. As such, children will attempt to cope with the discomfort and regain control through their eating behaviors.
The best way to help children in combating the mental distress caused by ELS experiences is to get them the proper support. For children and teens that have experienced ELS events, it is important that their support system both teach and model effective communication and coping skills.
Teaching children to effectively communicate their thoughts and feelings will allow them to process what they have been through in their own time. Further, strengthening their awareness of and ability to use coping skills that are helpful reduces the likelihood they will develop harmful coping mechanisms. The vulnerability of children to early-life stressors makes it important to provide them with the skills and support they need to overcome their experiences without long-term consequences of the impact others have had on them.
Resources: Syed, S. A., Nemeroff, C.B. (2017). Early life stress, mood, and anxiety disorders. Chronic Stress.  Lahdepuro, A. Et al (2019). The impact of early life stress on anxiety symptoms in later adulthood. Scientific Reports, retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-40698-0.pdf.
About the Author:
Margot Rittenhouse, MS, PLPC, NCC is a therapist who is passionate about providing mental health support to all in need and has worked with clients with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, domestic violence victims, and offenders, and severely mentally ill youth.
As a freelance writer for Eating Disorder Hope and Addiction Hope and a mentor with MentorConnect, Margot is a passionate eating disorder advocate, committed to de-stigmatizing these illnesses while showing support for those struggling through mentoring, writing, and volunteering. Margot has a Master’s of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Johns Hopkins University.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published April 22, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on April 22, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC