Overcoming Stress When You’re Young Prepares You For Adulthood


By Kirsten Cowart 

According to researchers at Penn State, rats who grew up in stressful conditions were better able to solve problems and forage better under high-threat conditions as an adult, especially when compared to rats that developed in low stress environments.  

This may give us a lot of insight into ourselves. If you grew up in hard circumstances or your family struggled, you may actually be quicker to adapt and have better survival skills as an adult. These skills can help you take better care of yourself and your family, making life easier for future generations.   

Just because you may have experienced stress growing up, doesn’t mean you are at all at a disadvantage now.

“Even though the stressed rats were really run through the gamut, they do not come out with an overall cognitive deficit,” said Ph.D. student in neuroscience and ecology at Penn State, Lauren Chaby. “What they do have is this context-specific performance that’s linked to the environment that they experienced during adolescence.”

Being Raised Surrounded By Stress – The Study

The researchers were very interested in finding out how being mistreated and growing up in adverse environments impacted human teens. However, because it would be awful and unethical to stress out or manipulate teenagers, they observed the conditions in rats.  

Wild animals can have stressful lives, because of predators in the wild. Rats who learn how to survive quickly avoid becoming prey and make it into adulthood. Because of the short lifespan of rats, the researchers were more able to see the longer term effects of stress.  

“Unpredictable stress can have dramatic and lasting consequences, both for humans and for free-living animals,” said Chaby. Unpredictability is part of what can make stress so toxic. You don’t have control over your environment, you don’t have control over what’s going to happen next, you’re not able to predict it. So we tried to use a range of stressors so the rats couldn’t predict which stressor was going to come next.”

After their initial tests, they then tested adult rats to see if there were lasting effects.  The control animals were kept in a calm and quiet area.   

“So you have this relaxed situation that they’re trying to solve these tasks in,” said Chaby. “But this isn’t really fair, since some of the animals are used to this and some of the animals aren’t. So we wanted to test them in conditions that were consistent with their rearing conditions to see if that impacted their ability to solve tasks.”

The Stress Test

The researchers tested 24 adult rats ability to solve problems and forage for food while they thought they were under a high-threat condition of a hawk. They would have a taxidermy hawk fly overhead and played hawk vocalizations. When the rats solved a problem, they were rewarded with food.

The rats that experienced higher stress during adulthood were quicker to respond than the rats who lived quiet lives. The stress-experienced adult rats would start foraging faster and visited 20% more food patches, collecting around 43% more food than the others.

Stress is designed to help you survive, but too much stress can cause health concerns.  However, it is interesting to learn that just the right amount of experience dealing with stress can help you adapt and react more quickly when faced with challenges later in life.  

The rats who had no stress in life up until that point where around 17% slower to do anything starting out. They basically just stood there wondering what to do instead of jumping into action. If you were in an emergency situation, these are not the type of people you would want to be around.  

Researchers are still trying to determine later-in-life effects to see if the added stress results in shorter life spans or other health concerns. Overall results seem to show that everything you overcome helps better prepare you to adapt and overcome challenges in the future.

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Kirsten Campbell
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Kirsten Campbell

Kirsten Cowart is a writer and researcher that has worked in the spiritual, mental health and medical fields.Kirsten enjoys studying and experiencing the benefits of yoga, meditation, nutrition, herbalism, organic gardening and alternative health.She worked hard in 2014 losing over 40 lbs. and has since maintained a healthy lifestyle.Follow her to learn more about her journey on Twitter, Facebook & Youtube!
Kirsten Campbell
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