Early life stress linked to increased levels of conscious “non-reactivity” and “awareness” in adulthood, study finds

Researchers in Brazil examined the effects of early life stress on mindfulness in adulthood and surprisingly found that those who experienced increased stress at a young age tended to score high on some aspects of mindfulness. The research, which appears in BMC Psychologyencourages further research into the consequences of early life trauma resulting in mindful behaviors, potentially increasing resilience.

Numerous studies have examined the impact of early life stress on the development of brain structures related to the regulation of emotions. These studies have shown that exposure to stress in early life can lead to mental and physical health disorders in adulthood. Adverse living conditions and low socioeconomic status are also associated with negative health outcomes that can impair cognitive and neurobiological development.

Mindfulness, on the other hand—involving intentional attention in the present moment without judgment—can facilitate adaptive emotion regulation strategies that promote healthy functioning. Although mindfulness-based interventions have positive effects on both physical and mental health, further research is needed to examine the relationship between trait mindfulness and early life stress.

In their new study, Vinícius Santos de Moraes and colleagues sought to examine the link between early life stress and levels of mindfulness in adults. The study involved collecting data from 929 employees of a public university in Brazil using a quantitative cross-sectional and correlational research design.

The Childhood Trauma Questionnaire and the Five-Facet Mindfulness Questionnaire were used to assess levels of early life stress and mindfulness, respectively. The researchers hypothesized that individuals who experienced higher levels of stress in early life would have lower levels of mindfulness. Understanding the relationship between early life stress and mindfulness can help develop interventions to build resilience and reduce the negative impact of early life stress on mental and physical health outcomes.

Some of the findings matched the researchers’ predictions. Those who have experienced fewer childhood physical neglect generally scored higher on the “observing” facet of mindfulness, which is characterized by paying attention to internal and external experiences, including thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and the environment, without reacting or judging.

Similarly, those who scored higher on the “describing” facet of mindfulness tended to have experienced it fewer emotional neglect, emotional abuse, physical neglect and sexual abuse. This facet is about being able to describe experiences in words and being able to accurately name thoughts and emotions.

But experienced more childhood emotional abuse, emotional neglect, and physical abuse were associated with higher “non-reactivity to inner experiences,” describing the ability to allow thoughts and emotions to arise and pass without getting caught up in or on them to respond.

In addition, a higher “conscious action” was associated with more emotional abuse, emotional neglect, sexual abuse, physical neglect and childhood physical abuse. This facet involves being fully present and engaged in the current activity, rather than being distracted or operating on autopilot.

The research team acknowledged some limitations of the study, including that the subjects may have been under stress because management at their workplace had recently changed. Second, the study design was self-reported and cross-sectional, requiring further research before drawing conclusions about cause and effect.

The research findings suggest that people who experienced stress early in life score higher in certain areas, suggesting a possible link to the “nonjudgmental inner experience” aspect of mindfulness, which helps manage their thoughts and emotions. However, people with early life stress may also be more reactive to their internal experiences, which can lead to a decline in their coping skills. The study recommends that mindfulness training may be a helpful approach to stress management and emotional regulation in people with a history of early life stress.

The study, “Relationship between Early Life Stress and Mindfulness in Adulthood: A Correlation Study,” is authored by Vinícius Santos de Moraes, Mariana Fernandes, Maria Neyrian de Fátima Fernandes, Larissa Bessani Hidalgo Gimenez, Elton Brás Camargo Júnior, and Edilaine Cristina da Silva Gherardi-Donato.

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