Trauma in childhood leads to empathy in adulthood

It's not just a case of "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

  • A new study suggests children who endure trauma grow up to be adults with more empathy than others.
  • The effect is not universal, however. Only one kind of empathy was greatly effected.
  • The study may lead to further investigations into how people cope with trauma and lead to new ways to help victims bounce back.

A new study published in PLOS One suggests that enduring a traumatic event in childhood can lead to higher levels of empathy as an adult. While it doesn't apply to every form of empathy, it does show how hardships can be overcome and even turned into growth opportunities.

How did they find that out?

The first experiment asked 387 of adults if they had experienced childhood trauma, such as the death of a close friend or family member, a divorce in the family, being subjected to violence, or sexual abuse. Subjects were then asked to fill out an EQ quiz to determine how empathetic they were. A second survey involved 442 participants and used the IRI test to measure empathy levels.

But while both studies found that the test subjects who had endured trauma showed traits of affective empathy, defined as "the ability respond to another person's mental state with an appropriate emotion," only the second test showed them scoring higher than those who didn't suffer trauma on cognitive empathy, explained by the researchers as "the ability to understand another's thoughts and feelings."

The authors suggested that the differences between the two tests used might account for this, but they also proposed that cognitive empathy might not be used as frequently when recovering from a traumatic event as affective empathy.

What are the caveats to this study?

The study relies on self-reporting and retrospective accounts of trauma. It also relies on people judging how well they agree with questions like "I can tune into how someone else feels rapidly and intuitively." Lead author David M. Greenberg said that this was an issue and that "Future studies need to use a longitudinal approach."

The authors also warn that they have found a correlation between experiencing trauma and having greater levels of empathy. While they propose that correlation is caused by individuals who can develop these skills to avoid the more horrid effects of childhood trauma, they cannot rule out another mechanism being the cause.

So, does this mean what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger?

The negative side of these experiences shouldn't be overlooked. People who go through these traumas as children are more likely to suffer a range of mental and emotional issues. These findings do suggest, however, that there is a way forward after a traumatic event or a severe loss. Dr. Greenberg summated the findings by saying "Readers of this study should take away that there are pathways to personal growth and resilience after experiencing a trauma."

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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.