Researchers in Brazil investigated the consequences of early life stress on trait mindfulness in adulthood and surprisingly found that those who experienced heightened stress in early life often had high scores on some aspects of trait mindfulness. The research, which appears in BMC Psychology, encourages further exploration into the consequences of early life trauma that results in mindful behaviors, possibly increasing resilience.
Numerous studies have explored 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 early life stress can lead to mental and physical health disorders in adulthood. Adverse living conditions and low socioeconomic status are also linked to negative health outcomes that can impair cognitive and neurobiological development.
In contrast, mindfulness — which involves deliberate attention in the present moment without judgment — can facilitate adaptive emotion regulation strategies that promote healthy functioning. While mindfulness-based interventions have been found to 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 investigate the connection between early life stress and levels of adult trait mindfulness. The study involved gathering 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 the levels of early life stress and mindfulness, respectively. The researchers hypothesized that individuals who had experienced higher levels of early life stress would have lower levels of trait mindfulness. By understanding the relationship between early life stress and trait mindfulness, interventions can be developed to build resilience and mitigate the negative impact of early life stress on mental and physical health outcomes.
Some of the findings were in line with the researchers’ predictions. Those who experienced less physical neglect in childhood tended to score higher on the “observe” 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 “describe” facet of mindfulness tended to have experienced less emotional neglect, emotional abuse, physical neglect, and sexual abuse. This facet involves being able to describe one’s experiences with words and to label thoughts and emotions accurately.
But experiencing more emotional abuse, emotional neglect, and physical abuse in childhood was associated with higher “nonreactivity to inner experience,” which describes the ability to allow thoughts and emotions to arise and pass without getting caught up in them or reacting to them.
In addition, higher “acting with awareness” was associated with more emotional abuse, emotional neglect, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and physical abuse in childhood. 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 to the study, including the subjects may have been under stress as the management at their workplace had recently changed. Second, the study design was self-report and cross-sectional, making further research necessary before cause and effect conclusions can be made.
The research findings suggest that people who have experienced early life stress tend to score higher in certain areas, indicating a possible link to the “non-judgmental inner experience” aspect of mindfulness, which helps in managing their thoughts and emotions. However, those with early life stress may also be more reactive to their internal experiences, which may lead to a decrease in their coping abilities. The study recommends that mindfulness training could be a useful approach for stress management and emotional regulation in those who have a history of early life stress.
The study, “Relationship between early-life stress and trait mindfulness in adulthood: a correlational study”, was 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.