Self-Criticism, Fight or Flight, ACEs Study

by Monica Ross

More on the topic of self-criticism, perfectionism, and should’s. This is an interesting video. Being overly self-critical could arguably activate the fight-flight response in an internal kind of way releasing cortisol, the stress hormone.   In other words, it’s like we’re recoiling in fear or feeling the need to flee based on the threat we feel coming from ourselves based on our own judgment about our own actions. If that makes, sense. And chronic stress increases the neural activity level in the region of our brain known as the fear center, the amygdala. At the same time, the part of the brain known as the hippocampus which is involved in such things as learning, memory, and stress control actually deteriorates under chronic stress conditions.

And when the hippocampus weakens our ability to control our stress weakens because it inhibits the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which controls our response to stress by releasing cortisol. Still with me? Too much cortisol leads to a decrease in synaptic connections and it causes our prefrontal cortex to shrink as well.

The prefrontal cortex controls concentration, decision making, judgment, and social interaction and keeps new brain cells from developing in the hippocampus, which as I said earlier is involved in learning, memory, and stress control.  As I said the link to the video above basically restates all this.

Bottom line is...or the link I'm trying to make is that if we are self-critical, our self-critical nature causes us to stress, our stress increases our fear, which inhibits our ability to learn, remember, and even to control our stress. That’s the vicious cycle. Whew! Yeah, that’s a lot.

The video above goes on to talk about a study done with rats that leads us to believe that there is something about providing an infant with enough nurture that it is able to produce cortisol receptors making the rats less susceptible to stress.  So nurture and nurturing experiences are at play in dampening the stress response we then think likely in human as well.

In the study, the pups of negligent moms were more sensitive to stress and that sensitivity was passed down from generation to generation as the clip goes on to say.  High levels of stress also weaken our immune system as this article from the APA points out. Just ask scientists who study psychoneuroimmunology. Loneliness, depression, low social interaction all affect our immune systems.

In addition there was also a study done called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study. It was conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control. What it boils down to is that adverse or traumatic childhood experiences have an effect on a child’s future outcome. More about the study here.

Common sense would seem to suggest this, but research proves it. What does the study define as adverse childhood experiences? They are stressful or traumatic events that take place in childhood.

ACEs include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Mother treated violently
  • Substance misuse within household
  • Household mental illness
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Incarcerated household member

Adverse childhood experiences have been linked to “risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and early death” from the link to the CDC website above, pretty serious stuff. And of course, as a child’s ACEs score rises so does the risk for those various outcomes.  The State of Texas has a program to monitor the prevention and early intervention of adverse experiences. You can find out more about it here.

In conclusion, stress is a bad thing. Let’s do what we can not to stress ourselves or each other out. It affects both our mental and physical health states. Our sensitivity to stress can be passed down to future generations, so it’s good for our offspring as well to aim for calm.