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Can practicing mindfulness combat toxic stress, childhood adversity?

Can practicing mindfulness combat toxic stress, childhood adversity?

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Even if you don’t spend much time covering children’s health, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the terms “adverse experiences” and “toxic stress” bandied about, the new bywords in the conversation on how trauma and neglect linger malignantly through childhood and into adulthood.

The basic concepts are easy to understand. Stress and the spikes in cortisol it creates are a regular feature of life, even in infancy. But while a nurturing, attentive parent can calm and soothe a panicked, upset child, and in so doing reset his or her stress settings, neglected or abused children find no such relief. Instead, their bodiess stress-response system remains in a perpetual under-siege mode. Over time, that hijacked hormone system impairs brain development, causes behavioral problems, and later in life, can lead to chronic illness and foreshortened lifespans.

Neglect and abuse are two forms of what researchers nowadays call adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. A substantial body of research has shown that the more such experiences a child endures – a mentally ill parent, sexual abuse or emotional neglect, for instance – the greater the risk for all kinds of health problems, from alcoholism to heart disease, teen pregnancy to pulmonary disease.

As with so many conditions, prevention is king when it comes to toxic stress and the traumas of childhood. New York Times’ columnist William Kristof, a tireless advocate for larger investments in early interventions such as the Nurse Family Partnership, summarized some of the lessons that have emerged from the research in a recent column, co-written with Sheryl WuDunn:

First, it is critical to intervene early, in the crucial window when the brain is developing and the foundations for adult life are being laid.

Few experts would disagree. But what happens when that early opportunity is missed?

I’ve written before on some of the working ideas on how to unwind these effects. While approaches such as child-family psychotherapy have shown promise, there is still no settled playbook when it comes to counteracting the effects of trauma and neglect (particularly for adults). One of the field’s foremost experts has strongly argued the need for bigger, bolder ideas and innovations to meet this societal challenge.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t intriguing leads, however. The latest such example comes from Temple University, where new research suggests that “mindfulness” and the practices that enhance it may help those who’ve endured childhood adversity to lead better, healthier lives.

Using data from a 2012 survey of 2,160 Head Start employees in Pennsylvania, Dr. Robert Whitaker and colleagues assigned each respondent a score based on their number of adverse childhood events, where they rank in terms of mindfulness and their overall health and quality of life. 

So what exactly is mindfulness? It’s generally thought of as a state of attentiveness to the thoughts, sensations and emotions that fill us, but without passing judgment on them. Meditation is often used as a means of increasing mindfulness.

Researchers found that poor health outcomes and a lesser quality of life were more common in those who registered lower on the mindfulness scale, and that held true regardless of the amount of adversity faced. Among the 23 percent of respondents who had three or more adverse childhood experiences, those in the highest quartile of mindfulness had multiple health conditions two-thirds as often as those in the lowest quartile, according to the study, published in the October issue of Preventive Medicine.

In short, higher levels of mindfulness were associated with better health and quality of life, even among adults who endured multiple traumatic events in their youth. The authors write:

We have demonstrated that greater levels of mindfulness among Head Start staff are associated with indicators of better health, such as less depression, more nighttime sleep, and fewer mentally unhealthy days, all of which could improve work-related functioning for the staff as well as program outcomes for children and families. 

There are some serious limitations to the data, acknowledged by the study. Only two-thirds of Head Start employees responded to the voluntary survey, and the sample was 97 percent women. The results may not apply to larger groups beyond Head Start. And it could also be something other than mindfulness leading to the better health evidenced by some of these employees.

But this isn’t the first piece of research to suggest that mindfulness practices can benefit mind and body. As the study authors note, one way such practices work is by lessening anxiety and depression, which then makes people less likely to smoke, drink and adopt other destructive behaviors at odds with their long-term health and well being.

Mindfulness may not be the blockbuster breakthrough that leading early childhood researcher Jack Shonkoff has been trying to coax forth from his colleagues in the field, and it’s no substitute for prevention. But if we suspect it might even incrementally help survivors of childhood traumas lead healthier lives, then it’s worth a deeper look.

Photo by Ariana Matos via Flickr.

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