Difficult experiences in childhood and cognitive flexibility

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Difficult experiences in childhood pave the way for various health problems such as depression and heart diseases in adulthood. These experiences can be defined as environmental factors such as abuse, neglect and deprivation that will push the child beyond normal development. It is thought that these experiences negatively affect neural development, disrupt the prefrontal cortex function, which is especially effective in strategic thinking, and reduce cognitive flexibility. In addition, it can damage the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, causing the person to give chronic stress responses even to short-term and temporary stress stimuli.

Emotional control strategies play an important role in controlling stress. According to Gross’s model, the regulation of emotions begins immediately after they are identified as beneficial and harmful. There are two different methods within emotion control strategies: expressive suppression and cognitive reappraisal. Expressive suppression is based on hiding and repressing emotions that are not sufficient to change them. By causing excessive physiological response, it can lead to chronic fatigue and decreased self-confidence in the long term. The reappraisal method aims to change the person’s approach to the stressor. Stress can be defined as the emotional experience experienced when a person believes that he cannot respond to what is requested from him with sufficient resources. With cognitive re-evaluation, the person is convinced of the adequacy of the resources at his disposal; the stimulus ceases to be threatening for him.

While it is assumed that the neural changes caused by difficult experiences are pathological, there are also assumptions that they strengthen some cognitive abilities. For example, people who have had difficult experiences appear to be better at developing emotional regulation strategies than people who have not had these experiences. However, the effect of experience on individuals may vary from person to person and is open to debate. Cognitive flexibility is a concept with various definitions. While some researchers evaluate it as the adaptation of attention to the changing environment, others evaluate it as the adaptation of behaviors to the environment.

In the study conducted by Kalia and Knauft (2020) from the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami, they measured the participants’ difficult childhood experiences, emotional control strategies, stress levels they experienced in the last month, and cognitive flexibility skills through problem solving and crisis management.

At the end of the study, the following findings were encountered:

  1. Difference in Emotion Control Strategy: Among people who have experienced the similar level of adversity, the stress levels of those who use the cognitive reappraisal strategy are lower than those who do not use this strategy, but
  2. Severity of Experience: As the number of difficult experiences increases, the stress-reducing effect of the cognitive reappraisal strategy decreases.
  3. Less Experience and Suppression Strategy: On the other hand, those who use the expressive suppression strategy have higher stress levels, as well as the stress of those who have had fewer difficult experiences than those who use this method.
  4. Frequency of Emotion Control Strategy Use: It was observed that those who used the reappraisal method with a frequency below a certain value and those who used the expressive suppression method with a frequency above a certain value had higher stress, regardless of the amount of difficult experience.
  5. Cognitive Flexibility vs. Difficult-Experience Relationship: It has been observed that cognitive flexibility values are inversely proportional to the amount of difficult experience.

Kalia and Knauft’s study: The survey answers can be subjective because they are about the people themselves, and the economic situations of the people were not investigated. As a matter of fact, it is clear that individuals with low socioeconomic levels can live lives with high levels of stress, independent of psychological development.

As a result, it is understood that the difficulties individuals experience in their childhood cause them to perceive ordinary stimuli in their daily lives as threatening. Although these difficult experiences seem to negatively affect cognitive flexibility, it has been observed that they do not negatively affect the functions related to being able to handle problems from different perspectives, which may be pleasing for individuals who grew up with difficult experiences.

– Kalia, V., & Knauft, K. (2020). emotions regulation strategies modulate the effect of adverse childhood experiences on perception chronicle stress with implications for cognitive cognitive flexibility. Plos one, 15(6), e0235412.