It is human nature to want stability, but what happens when those needs are not met in childhood? A study published in Depression & Anxiety suggests that early-life instability is associated with adverse outcomes in adulthood, including anxiety and depression.
Our experiences as children are monumentally important regarding our outcomes in later life. Early-life is an especially formative time due to the brain’s rapid development. Many factors can adversely affect brain development, including poverty, abuse, trauma, malnutrition, neglect, and more. These conditions are risk factors not only for stunted brain development, but also for negative mental health outcomes in adulthood according to previous research.
Another key factor to consider is fragmentation or unpredictability. This has been shown to have adverse outcomes, even when there is no known trauma. The new study sought to understand how negative effects of early-life instability may contribute to symptoms of people at psychiatric risk.
For their study, Andrea D. Spadoni and colleagues used 156 adult participants who were seeking treatment at VA clinics to serve as their sample. Many participants were seeking treatment for PTSD and/or depression already. Mental health symptoms were assessed via self-report measures and participants spoke with a research assistant about their current level of treatment.
Urine, blood, and saliva were collected from participants and participants were assessed up to 3 times with 3 months between visits. Participants completed measures on early-life adversity, depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms, anhedonia, suicidal ideation, substance use, and pain.
Results showed that early-life unpredictability was associated with greater symptomology of depression and anxiety, even when childhood trauma was absent. Additionally, for people with childhood trauma, early-life instability was related to worsened PTSD symptoms, as well as greater symptoms of depression, anxiety, and anhedonia.
These relationships were stable at follow up appointments, suggesting longevity of this relationship between childhood unpredictability and worsened symptoms of mental illness. Early-life instability was also associated with increased suicidal ideation.
This study took important steps into better understanding how childhood unpredictability can have adverse effects on people later in life. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that the sample consisted of mostly veterans, which could limit generalizability. Additionally, self-report measures of early-life experiences can be unreliable due to memory failure or even repression.
The study, “Contribution of early-life unpredictability to neuropsychiatric patterns in adulthood“, was authored by Andrea D. Spadoni, Meghan Vinograd, Bruna Cuccurazzu, Katy Torres, Laura M. Glynn, Elysia P. Davis, Tallie Z. Baram, Dewleen G. Baker, Caroline M. Nievergelt, and Victoria B. Risbrough.