How Childhood Stress Affects Mental Health In Adults?

— Researched and written by Dr. Sandip Roy.

We mostly associate stress with adulthood. Understandably, stress comes with adult life situations, like work, personal relationships, marriage, and financial issues.

In the adult mind, childhood is a time of playfulness and innocence, free of worries. And we bless kids for not having to worry about earning money or saving for retirement.

Of course, children growing up in abusive homes, war zones, or extreme poverty experience severe stress and trauma.

But some of our unhappiness or mental non-fulfillment as adults can be traced to our childhood stress.

Common Signs of Stress In Children

Stressed children can show emotional outbursts, irritability, and sleep troubles like nightmares. They may avoid activities they used to like earlier, prefer to sit alone, worry a lot, and complain about school.

They can be seen crying more often, showing fearful behavior, or becoming overly clingy to parents or caretakers. Physical signs like headaches, stomach aches, eating tantrums, or bed-wetting are also common.

Some parents and caretakers believe that the kids eventually grow out of these conditions. However, research indicates that the effects of childhood stress can last a lifetime.


Common Signs of Childhood Stress In Adults

Childhood stress can manifest in adults as anxiety, difficulty forming or keeping relationships, emotional instability, mood swings, or low self-worth. They might show a heightened or prolonged stress response to manageable situations.

Such adults may also have deep-rooted fears or insecurities rooted in their childhood experiences and have physical symptoms like chronic pain or gastrointestinal issues.

Childhood stress can make adults more vulnerable to issues like heart disease, strokes, immune system diseases, and memory problems like dementia.

Toxic stress in early life can permanently change language, cognitive, and social-emotional skills, and lead to maladaptive responses to adversity. It can also create a hyper-alert or always-active stress response system (Shonkoff et al., 2012).

1. Childhood Stress And Adult Depression.

Studies show that childhood stress can cause high stress and poor mental health in adults, hurting their “life potential”—what they could do best with their lives.

A well-known research project, titled the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, found strong links between childhood stress and mental health in adulthood.

The study followed children who had experienced “adverse effects” and observed how they fared as adults.

The “adverse effects” included abusive homes, alcoholic parents, mistreatment, and neglect — conditions that cause recurring stress for children under the age of 5.

Perhaps not too surprisingly, the researchers found that these children were more likely to be depressed and develop problem behaviors like substance abuse, as adults.

The children were also more likely to have attempted suicide by the time they reached adulthood.

Their ability to graduate from college or high school, get good grades, and remain employed were all affected by childhood stress.

As adults, they missed more days at work than the average adult of the same age. The depressed ones tended to have sleep disorders.

2. Childhood Stress And Adult Pessimism.

Researchers in this study observed 72 boys, mainly of African-American origin, for two decades of their lives.

All the children grew up in stressful home environments. Their experiences involved domestic violence, parental substance abuse, divorced parents, parents struggling with money, or facing other adversities.

When the kids turned 26, the researchers had them come in and play cards while getting their brains scanned. They wanted to know how these men responded to reward and success.

The results were no less than shocking. They found that a part of the brain called the ventral striatum in these men showed slowed responses.

The ventral striatum processes reward activity and motivation.

These men experienced poor motivation, a poor concept of self, and low levels of optimism.

Even more striking, early childhood stress had a greater impact on their adult minds than teenage stress.

Some of them also showed reduced activity in brain parts linked to depression and good moods, especially in those who had stressful years between the ages of 5 and 9.

The researchers did not find similar brain patterns in those who underwent late childhood stress—during their school years (ages 9 to 12) or as teenagers (ages 13 to 17).

“Early life stress (ELS) is strongly associated with negative outcomes in adulthood, including reduced motivation and increased negative mood.”

— Hanson & Albert, et al., 2016

This study strongly suggests that childhood stress can fundamentally alter the brain structure in children that they carry into adult life. The stressful childhood events become “biologically embedded.”

How sad it is that our youngest are the most vulnerable to stress, both biologically and psychologically.

3. Childhood Stress And Adult Inflammation.

A major study followed 1,037 New Zealand children born in the 1970s who had experienced childhood stress — maternal rejection, harsh discipline, caregiver changes, physical abuse, and sexual abuse.

Researchers measured their stress “biomarkers” — white blood cell counts, fibrinogen, and C-reactive protein. Raised levels of stress biomarkers in the blood indicate inflammation.

They found that maltreated children showed higher levels of stress biomarkers at an early age, as early as age 12.

The findings also suggest that childhood maltreatment may have long-term implications for adult health, including conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and chronic lung disease.

4. Inescapable Mental Health Aftermath of Childhood Stress.

Early childhood stress can last long, even if the children later find themselves in a supportive environment.

One landmark study examined a group of Romanian children adopted by British families.

These children had lived in orphanages, in stressful conditions like deplorable hygiene, insufficient food, little personalized care, and no social or cognitive stimulation.

They were adopted by families in the UK between the ages of two weeks and 43 months and spent the next 20 to 25 years in a supportive, loving, and well-to-do environment.

Key findings by the researchers:

  • Children exposed to early deprivation in Romanian institutions faced mental health challenges in early adulthood, even after living in supportive families for over 20 years.
  • Time spent in Romania was a significant indicator of future mental health. Children who spent more than 6 months showed higher rates of social, emotional, and cognitive problems.
  • These children also showed higher rates of social problems, autistic features, difficulties engaging with others, inattention, overactivity, emotional problems, lower educational attainment, and employment rates in adulthood.

“Being exposed to very severe conditions in childhood can be associated with lasting and deep-seated social, emotional and cognitive problems, which are complex and vary over time,” said lead author Professor Edmund Sonuga-Barke, King’s College London, UK.

Final Words

Childhood stress is strongly linked with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and poor social skills in adults.

Worse, early life stress can also change the brain structure and chemistry for life. Still worse, these changes in the brain are not reversible later in life.

Early life stress can create a hypervigilant or chronically active stress response system.

If you are an adult who feels stressed out more than you should, I highly recommend talking to a counselor to determine if your childhood stress is a contributing factor.

√ Also Read:

√ Please spread the word if you found this helpful.

Our Story!


When it comes to mental well-being, you don't have to do it alone. Going to therapy to feel better is a positive choice. Therapists can help you work through your trauma triggers and emotional patterns.