New psychology research shows early life stress doesn’t have to be extreme to affect emotional processing

New research provides evidence that experiences of early life stress are associated with atypical responses towards emotional facial expressions in adulthood. The findings have been published in the journal Development and Psychopathology.

“One of the things that drives me as a researcher is how we can improve the experiences of people with mental illness, by developing better treatments and clearer knowledge of these health conditions,” explained Elizabeth Kirkham (@EK_Neuro), a research associate at the University of Edinburgh and the corresponding author of the study.

“Early life stress and trauma are a huge factor in the development of mental illness later in life – I think society in general is still not aware of how close the relationship between early stress and later health (mental and physical) really is. If we can understand more about early life stress then we can understand more about how mental illness develops, which in turn will help us find better ways of reducing the suffering of people living with mental health conditions.”

In the study, 395 participants completed the Child Abuse and Trauma Scale after being shown photographs depicting angry, happy, and neutral facial expressions. The participants indicated the extent to which they would approach the person in the image and the extent to which they would avoid the person.

The researchers found that participants who experienced more stressful life events in childhood and adolescence tended to be less avoidant of people with angry facial expressions.

“Our results were surprising — that early life stress is associated with reduced, not increased, avoidance of anger in people with no signs of mental ill health. This is the opposite of what we expected,” Kirkham told PsyPost.

But Kirkham said the findings indicate that early life stress “doesn’t have to be extreme to affect emotional processing. Very few of the people in our study had histories of extreme trauma or neglect, yet the stress that they did experience as children was linked to both their mental health and their responses to emotional information as adults.”

“This is important when we think about our social environment — investing in the quality of children’s early life is likely to pay dividends later on in terms of the health of the wider society.”

The relationship between early life stress and reduced avoidance of angry facial expressions was not found among participants who showed signs of depression and anxiety. More depressed participants, however, did tend to be more avoidant of happy facial expressions.

“We were also surprised that that was no relationship between early life stress and avoidance of anger amongst people with evidence of mental illness, even though the expected relationship between depression and avoidance of happy facial expressions was present,” Kirkham said.

“Therefore it’s important that additional work is carried out to examine what is going on here and why the effects of early life stress are different from what might have been predicted from previous research. I suspect it might be connected to the fact that previous research has focused on children with extreme early life stress, whereas we focused on adults with relatively low levels of early life stress.”

“I’d be very happy to hear from researchers or students who share my interest in early life stress and its effects on the adult brain. There’s still a lot to be discovered within this field,” Kirkham added.

The study, “Early life stress is associated with reduced avoidance of threatening facial expressions“, was authored by Elizabeth J. Kirkham and Liat Levita.