For almost ten years, my parents have provided a temporary (and occasionally permanent) home for children who, for some reason or another, cannot be cared for by their biological parents. Many of my foster brothers and sisters have experienced severe childhood stress, which is a risk factor for many behavioral and emotional problems. I often wonder what cognitive factors promote resilience to early traumatic experiences, and what interventions might be useful to cultivate normal development in these sad situations.
Over the past few years, I have been studying the mental processes that guide human thought and behavior more generally. After all, even those of us who did not suffer childhood trauma often fail to exercise reason in the face of overpowering emotions or urges. As I looked for factors that might give reason an edge, I came across the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, or nonjudgmental awareness. To cultivate mindfulness, a person learns to observe his or her thoughts, feelings, and sensations without reacting or clinging to them. Rather than forming opinions and getting lost in a runaway train of thought, the person strives for a state of acceptance and equanimity that is sometimes referred to as “bare awareness” or “friendly awareness.” A rapidly growing body of research indicates that mindfulness training of this sort promotes physical, psychological, and social well-being.
Many of the stress-reducing benefits of mindfulness are related to executive functions, a set of cognitive processes involved in attention and planning, which are utilized to practice mindfulness and are strengthened by the practice of mindfulness. They include the flexibility to divert one’s mind away from stress-generating thoughts and toward more productive ones; the presence of mind to make healthy lifestyle choices; and the ability to evaluate one’s circumstances from multiple divergent perspectives. It is easy to see how these faculties can reduce stress if they used properly, and there is plenty of research attesting to this fact. My project investigates their influences on the long-term accumulation of stress that begins very early in life, known as allostatic load.
I hope to demonstrate that executive functions reduce the impact of early traumatic experiences on allostatic load. If my results bear this out, it will likely mean that interventions focused on improving executive functions in early childhood can enhance resilience to early life stress, leading to better physical and psychological health outcomes. Mindfulness training in preschool is currently being investigated, and it is a promising avenue for fostering executive functions early in life. With more research into factors that protect against the harmful accumulation of stress, there will hopefully be widespread adoption of programs geared toward helping children develop resilience and live balanced, healthy lives.