Research shows there is a possible link between childhood stress and chronic pain as an adult. It’s possible that the neurobehavioral mechanisms created in childhood could be the missing piece of the pain/PTSD puzzle.
A body in a state of stress produces a variety of chemicals, including catecholamines and cytokines. Catecholamines are released by the SAM, sympathetic adrenomedullary axis, and include the neurotransmitters adrenaline and noradrenaline. They run around in the bloodstream mobilizing energy and preparing the body for “fight or flight.”
Cytokines are groups of substances such as peptides and proteins that are secreted by immune system cells. These substances carry signals to other cells. During chronic stress, catecholamines can create a negative feedback loop by blocking certain neurotransmitters that affect mood, increasing chronic inflammation throughout the body.
That means increased chance of depression, which also has a physical pain component. Overproduction of pro-inflammatory cytokines has also been linked to rheumatoid arthritis, which is caused by inflammation and involves the destruction of healthy tissue.
Dealing with chronic stress as an adult is one thing; when it’s present from childhood, it can become a regular and painful part of everyday life.
Persistent, stressful phenomenon in early childhood can lead to increased sensitivity to pain, which carries on into adulthood. An animal study at the University of California, San Francisco restricted the nurturing practices of rat mothers, which reduced the consistency of care received by the pups. The result showed that the rats were very reactive to painful stimuli as pups and as adults.
This study implies that the nurturing provided by parents, especially during stressful times, plays an extremely important role in a child’s immunity and neurobehavioral health. Understanding more about this link means a lot to the medical research community as they are now better able to effectively assess individual risks of chronic pain syndromes or even PTSD.
Obstacle to Releasing Early Life Stress and Trauma
These findings underscore the importance of releasing residual stress from a painful childhood. The primary obstacle to doing this seems to be acclimation. In other words, when you were raised in a painful environment, you had to learn to tolerate that pain, even though you hated it.
The high tolerance for pain carries forward into adult life. So, rather than simply releasing the pain and moving on, you find yourself unwittingly attracting more of what has become so familiar.
If you’ve acclimated to emotional pain and stress, then it may be serving as a kind of emotional default – something so familiar (or even comforting in a strange way) that you end up clinging to it. It can feel like your emotional problems are just “who you are.”
A successful approach to resolving this unwitting default is to begin to see it for what it is, and learn to recognize the ways in which you may be inviting unnecessary emotional stress and pain into your life.
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Mike Bundrant is the author of Your Achilles Eel: Discover and Overcome the Hidden Source of Negativity, Bad Decisions and Self-Sabotage. Click here to learn more.