What’s More Important to Mental Health in Adulthood Than a Happy Childhood?

It’s now a no brainer that adversities in early childhood increase one’s risks of developing a mental illness in adulthood. Thanks to recent research, we now know that when a young child experiences corporal discipline or other forms of trauma, that can literally rewire the neural networking of their brain, making them more susceptible to substance addictions and mental health disorders later in life.

The Impact of Positive vs. Negative Experiences in Early Childhood

But if a difficult childhood can often seem like a sentencing of sorts—to anxiety, depression, or other disorders later in life—does a happy childhood mean the reverse? In other words, does a happy childhood protect a person from mental illness in adulthood?

No, according to a study at the University of South Australia. It examined the link between early childhood experiences and different developmental pathways in the brain and how these connections were related to poor mental health outcomes. What the researchers found was that even children raised in happy homes went on to experience anxiety and other mental health disorders.

A statement on the website of the University of South Australia summed up these findings as follows:

While the study reaffirmed that people who had adverse and unpredictable early life experiences had elevated symptoms of poor mental health (including depression and paranoia), it also found that children who grew up in stable and supportive environments were also at risk of experiencing symptoms of anxiety in adulthood.

What Matters More to Mental Health in Adulthood?

If positive experiences from childhood don’t eliminate the risk of anxiety in adulthood, what does mitigate against mental health symptoms? Adaptability, the researchers said. By that they meant a child’s capacity to cope with and adjust to life changes, especially when things do not go their way or according to their expectations.

People who are adaptable exhibit these qualities, according to an April 2020 article from Goodwin University:

  • They are flexible and can let go of habits to pivot and adjust quickly.
  • They are curious and take a problem-solving approach.
  • They are quick to embrace the opportunity above the challenge.
  • They are emotionally intelligent.
  • They practice positivity in all spheres of their life.

How to Cultivate Adaptability

If adaptability is key to mental health, how do you cultivate it? Here are some suggestions:

  • Do something that scares you or takes you out of your comfort zone.
  • In the face of a setback or obstacle, look for the growth opportunities instead of fixating on the negative or painful emotions.
  • Visualize yourself feeling anxious and managing the emotion.
  • Have the courage to reach out for help when approaching new challenges or stresses.
  • Strive to live in the present moment and adopt a positive view of the future.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of adaptability is that it can be acquired, albeit with intentionality and practice. No one can change their childhood. No one can choose at an early age what home they’ll grow up in or whether it is happy or unhappy. What they can do is change their response to stress and become more adaptable over time. In the process, they may feel healthier, happier, and less prone to mental health issues.