Most people think of childhoods as either happy or sad, sunny or stormy. That’s probably because most of us think of our own upbringing as a rather sunny one (see what Alice Miller has to say about this), and a few have shared or have heard friends share traumatic experiences – so we know stormy ones exist, too. The one type of childhood environment I have rarely ever heard people describe is overcast. Is it because it doesn’t exist, or is it a blind spot, not worthy of discussion? If we turn out sane enough, that logic goes, we might as well consider ourselves lucky enough and get on with life.

Logically, it is probably a blind spot. Just as skies are rarely cloudless or stormy but most often oscillate between “scattered clouds” and “overcast”, it makes sense to expect upbringing environments to also have a similar pattern, a continuum from low to high levels of stress that is toxic to growing children. They are not the same everywhere: in some parts of the world childhoods are harder than in others, just as in some places the climate is rougher than in others.

What do we mean by “toxic stress”? Researchers point to big factors like economic hardship; divorce; witnessing violence; living with adults who are alcoholic, have been jailed, or have mental illnesses; emotional and physical neglect and abuse. They call these “Adverse Childhood Experiences” (or “ACEs.”) In the US, as reported by parents, just over half the children have experienced no ACEs, 35% have experienced one or two (most frequently economic hardship and divorce), and just over 10% have experienced three or more.

But there is a difference between stressors that researchers can detect and measure, and what a child experiences as chronic and overwhelming stress. For example, the wealthy married parents of a boy who endured a rotation of 18 nannies in his first three years of life – as described by psychiatrist Dr Bruce Perry with co-author Maia Szalavitz in their 2010 book “Born for Love” – hadn’t thought there was anything wrong with that picture, and would not have listed their boy as having had ACEs. Nevertheless, his emotional shutdown and its tragic consequences were directly related to the dysfunctional attachment patterns in his upbringing.

Why is it important to acknowledge that many of us may have grown up under overcast skies; that although we may not have been struck by lightning, we may still have missed vital sunlight? Our upbringing tunes our stress response system and shapes our coping styles in ways that endure. Since our hormonal, emotional, immune and nervous systems are connected, our short term adaptations to toxic stress magnify the risk of illness by increasing the likelihood of chronic stress over the course of our lifetimes.

In his 2006 book “When the body says NO“, Dr Gabor Mate examines the role such hidden stress plays in an array of diseases that arise from impaired immunity, including cases of heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and certain cancers. He explains: “Children and infants have virtually no capacity for biological self-regulation; their internal biological states – heart rates, hormone levels, nervous system activity – depend completely on their relationships with caregiving grown-ups. Emotions such as love, fear or anger serve the needs of protecting the self while maintaining essential relationships with parents. Psychological stress is whatever threatens the young creature’s perception of a safe relationship with the adults, because any disruption in the relationship will cause turbulence in the internal milieu.

As for most things in Nature, one tool has many uses. The one tool children use in dealing with all sorts of unbearable situations that give rise to unspeakably negative emotions is repression of these negative feelings. Anger, fear or pain can arise when we experience things like loss or abandonment, rejection, intrusions that obstruct our autonomy, emotional deprivation, merciless criticism, etc. Mate lists a few examples of what the repression of negative feelings early in life looks like in adult personalities:

  • A rigidly competent behavior, a relentless self-drive, inability to ask for or receive help, denying physical and emotional pain” 
  • “An extreme suppression of anger, denial, unrealistic self-sacrificing behaviours, passive, stoic response style, inability to recognize intrusion, inability to assert oneself, avoidance of conflict, chronic guilt and feeling of inadequacy” 
  • “Depression, perfectionistic standards, concern about the judgement of others, very critical of others and of themselves”
  • “A controlling, over-organizing, obsessive about details, anxious, neat, punctual, conscientious, guarding of affectivity, over-intellectual, rigid towards morality and standards of behavior”
  • “A dissociated state, numb, emotionally shut down, tuned out of reality, immense insularity”
  • “A compensating hyper-independence, pretending there are no needs they cannot meet themselves

We all recognize ourselves, family members and friends in some of these descriptions. The key insight is that these are not personality traits: they are coping styles. Acknowledging that things may have been difficult during our upbringing helps us recognize that the coping styles we developed may erode our vitality and health in the long run. This awareness, along with the free expression to any repressed emotions gradually allows these adaptations to fade, our bodies to settle, our feelings to flourish. It is not about blaming one’s parents or one’s self for illness. It’s about being aware enough of our stories to defuse chronic stress, prevent illness and improve wellness.