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A troubled childhood can have its advantages

21 January 2014

A stressful childhood can reduce the risk of depression after stressful life-events. Conversely, an untroubled childhood can actually increase the risk of depression when facing stress in later life. The way a person is able to focus or switch attention determines how he or she is likely to react. This is the surprising result of a study conducted by researcher Esther Nederhof from the UMCG. Her article on this subject is published in today’s edition of the leading journal Psychological Science.

It is generally accepted that stress increases the risk for depression. Nederhof’s research shows that for some people, this correlation may be quite different. For her research, Nederhof asked approximately one thousand people to take part in two tests. The first test involved carrying out a boring task. The participants who showed few inconsistencies while carrying out the task over a sustained period were good at focusing their attention. They are known as ‘sustainers’. In a second test, she looked into whether the participants slowed down when asked to carry out a second task alongside the first. The participants who scored well and managed not to slow down were good at switching their attention. Members of this group are known as ‘shifters’.

Nederhof shows that sustainers who experienced little stress during childhood are at greater risk for depression if subjected to stressful life-events in later life. ‘These people are not necessarily more sensitive to stress, but to the mismatch between their stress levels during childhood and their more recent stress levels’, says Nederhof. ‘This makes them more susceptible to depression. On the other hand, sustainers who had a stressful childhood are less likely to become depressed when faced with stress in later life than all the other groups. They appear to be programmed to cope with stress from an early age.’

The results for the control group in Nederhof’s study are exactly as you would expect: the risk of depression increases in line with the level of recent stress, irrespective of the stress levels they experienced in childhood. No link between stress and depression was identified for the shifters. ‘They seem to shrug their shoulders and turn their attention to something else rather than letting things get them down after a stressful event’, says Nederhof.

According to Nederhof, the results could be important when it comes to choosing a career. ‘It may help to explain why some police officers experience psychological problems after dealing with a gruelling situation, while others don’t. The information could also be crucial when selecting troops to go on stressful international missions.’

Nederhof used data from the ongoing TRAILS study for her research. Since 2001, TRAILS has been tracking the mental, social and physical development of a group of children as they head into adulthood. Almost 2,900 adolescents have been involved in the study from the age of ten. The fifth round of measurements was recently completed.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.34 p.m.
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