Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

The Impact of Early Life Stress on the Neurodevelopment of the Stress Response System

Academic journal article Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD

The Impact of Early Life Stress on the Neurodevelopment of the Stress Response System

Article excerpt

A focus on human development serves as one of the philosophical pillars that informs the conceptualization of client needs and treatment planning in counseling (Ivey & Goncalves, 1988). Thus, one of the primary questions with which counseling scholars and practitioners have concerned themselves pertains to explanatory systems associated with the etiology of human development processes and subsequent pathways to therapeutic change. Neurodevelopment is an emerging paradigm that contributes to this domain of inquiry (Makinson & Young, 2012). Indeed, neuroprocesses have recently emerged as an area of focus in counseling literature (cf. Jones, Young, & Leppma, 2010; Makinson & Young, 2012; Myers & Young, 2012), and standards established by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) pertaining to human growth and development now endorse the need for neurobiological processes to be included in counseling education curricula (CACREP, 2009). These recent developments highlight the importance of neurodevelopment as an emerging paradigm in the profession of counseling. This expansion is timely given the prevalence of early life stress in the form of child abuse and neglect, the experience of which has been linked to the disruption of neurodevelopmental processes and to the subsequent detriment to client well-being (Andersen et al., 2008; Heim, Meinlschmidt, & Nemeroff, 2003).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2011) reported that, in 2010, state child protective service agencies received 3.3 million reports of child abuse and neglect, almost 700,000 of which were verified. Data from the report indicated that the number of actual cases of abuse and neglect probably exceeded the number that could be confirmed. Maluccio (2006) indicated that trends in recent years suggest a rise in the incidence of child abuse and neglect concurrent with increased economic pressures on families and spending cuts in federal preventive programs. Thus, the number of clients who are referred to counseling for issues associated with child abuse and neglect may rise. Given the prevalence of clients likely to present for counseling with issues pertaining to child abuse and neglect and the association between early life stress and neurodevelopment (Trickett & McBride-Chang, 1995), a continued focus in the counseling literature on neuro-developmental processes is warranted. The purpose of this article is to describe the functioning of the stress response system of the brain and to review literature pertaining to the impact of early life stress on the development of the stress response mechanisms. A focus on the impact of early life stress on the stress response system in particular is important because the development and functioning of this system appear to have lifelong implications for the well-being of clients (Gunnar, 2007). Indeed, dysregulation of the stress response system has been linked with various forms of psychopathology, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD; Shea, Walsh, MacMillan, & Steiner, 2004), panic disorder (Abelson, Khan, Liberzon, & Young, 2007; Graeff & Zangrossi, 2010), and major depressive disorder (Guerry & Hastings, 2011). Thus, consideration of developmental processes that affect the functioning of the stress response system is relevant to the consideration of factors that affect client well-being and may, in some cases, inform treatment planning.

Stress Response Systems of the Brain

The brain contains mechanisms that allow for adaptation to adverse circumstances. Although there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes adverse circumstances, stress, in the context of many neurodevelopment studies, refers to circumstances appraised as threatening and as a burden to coping mechanisms (Heim, Kletzko, Purselle, Musselman, & Nemeroff, 2008). Optimally, neuromechanisms allow for the adjustment of body systems to a state of arousal (e. …

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