Childhood stress: negative, positive…and hereditary?

Mental illness is oddly stigmatized in light of the numbers. It is so prevalent that, in one its widely-varied forms, it will affect approximately one in four people. And in economic terms, its repercussion will be greater than that of heart disease and even cancer.

More than half of all mental illnesses begin developing before adulthood. Although there are many different causes, scientists are increasingly looking to events that take place in childhood and adolescence. Does early stress lead to a greater risk of mental illness? There are many figures that say yes, but research is introducing unexpected new nuances. On one hand, a certain type of stress is beginning to be seen as positive, as it helps us adapt to adversity in adulthood. On the other, there are indications that the after effects of exposure to early traumatic experiences can be passed down to our children and even grandchildren through epigenetic mechanisms.  

In order to discuss some of the most recent and important advances, several of the top international experts met on 25 and 26 October 2016 at the debate ‘Early Life Experiences. Vulnerability or Resilience?’ organized by B·Debate –an initiative of Biocat and the "la Caixa" Foundation to promote scientific debate− and the Institut de Neurociències with collaboration from the CORE in Mental Health of the Autonomous University of BarcelonaVall d'Hebron Research Institute and The Institute for the Study of Affective Neuroscience.



  1. Negative stress in early stages of life increases a person’s chances of experiencing depression, anxiety or psychosis, as well as non-mental illnesses like some types of cardiovascular disease. .
  2. Studies show that there may also be positive stress: making people more resilient and having benefits in adulthood. 
  3. The exact routes and mechanisms behind adaptive stress aren’t fully understood yet, but it seems important for it to be perceived as controllable.
  4. The consequences of negative stress could be hereditary and passed down to the following generations. If this were confirmed, it would be an epigenetic inheritance instead of a genetic one.