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Stress in Early Childhood Ups Risks for Depression, Marijuana Addiction

New findings from a group of American researchers point toward an increased risk for depression-related marijuana problems in adults exposed to high amounts of stress early on in life.

Current evidence indicates that children exposed to highly stressful situations or events in the first few years of life may experience long-lasting and damaging changes in brain function. In a study in the journal Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas looked at the impact that early-life stress has on the odds that an adult will develop diagnosable problems with marijuana consumption. These researchers concluded that early-life stress contributes to risks for problematic marijuana use by influencing the likelihood that an adult will experience symptoms of depression.

Early-Life Stress

Human beings have a natural capacity to endure stressful situations while retaining a sense of mental and physical well-being. However, this capacity develops over time, and children have a much lower level of stress tolerance than adults. Psychologists, researchers and public health officials use the term early-life stress to refer to stressful situations or events in the first five years of life that can potentially overwhelm a young child’s relatively meager anti-stress capabilities and endanger mental and physical health. Potential sources of this form of stress include persistent or repeated exposure to pain or hunger, serious illness, living in a household affected by intimate partner violence, exposure to neglect or abuse, living through parental divorce and experiencing the death of a loved one.

Significant problems linked to exposure to serious stress at a young age include heightened lifetime heart disease risks, heightened lifetime anxiety risks, heightened lifetime depression risks, heightened lifetime cancer risks, reduced socioeconomic standing in later life and reduced educational standing in later life. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined the brains of young children exposed to early-life stress. The researchers concluded that these children had unusually underdeveloped structures in parts of the brain responsible for coping with stress and regulating emotion.

Marijuana and Depression

In habitual and/or heavy users, marijuana consumption is linked to increased risks for experiencing the hallucinations and delusional thought patterns characteristic of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses capable of triggering psychotic mental states. Habitual marijuana use may also increase the odds that an individual will become depressed or experience intensified forms of existing depression symptoms. Whatever the underlying mechanism at work, marijuana consumers develop depression more often than their non-marijuana-consuming counterparts; they also develop more severe depression symptoms. The combined intake of marijuana and alcohol may further boost depression-related risks.

Early-Life Stress and Marijuana Problems

Up to 50 percent of habitual marijuana users will eventually merit a diagnosis of cannabis use disorder (cannabis abuse/addiction). In the study scheduled for publication in Addictive Behaviors, the University of Texas at Dallas researchers used a project involving 157 adults to explore the connection between exposure to early-life stress and the chances of developing diagnosable marijuana problems. All of the study participants qualified as active, heavy users of the drug. Each participant took a test designed to detect early-life stress exposure, as well as a second test designed to measure current stress levels. In addition, each participant took a test designed to reveal diagnosable symptoms of depression, a test designed to reveal diagnosable symptoms of anxiety and a test designed to reveal the presence of marijuana-related problems.

The researchers concluded that adults currently under stress have increased chances of developing problematic patterns of marijuana use when they have significant indications of depression and/or anxiety. They also concluded that adults with a history of early-life stress have increased chances of developing marijuana-related problems when they have significant indications of depression (but not anxiety).

The study’s authors believe their findings underscore the impact of depression related to early-life stress exposure in adults who consume marijuana. They believe their findings also underscore the impact of depression related to current stress levels. In addition, the authors feel that steps taken to offset early-life stress and current stress may help reduce the adult rate of cannabis use disorder. Still, they point toward a need for additional research to further explore the ways in which early-life stress and current stress contribute to depression and subsequent risks for marijuana problems.

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