Breathe In, Breathe Out

Auburn researchers measure effects of family aggression on young adult health

Font Size

Article body

What happens in childhood can have lasting effects later in life. Auburn University College of Human Sciences researchers found that family aggression during childhood can predict health problems in adolescence. Continuing along the same line of research through an R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Auburn researchers Drs. Mona El-Sheikh, Stephen Erath, Ben Hinnant and Joe Buckhalt are the first to examine how sleep and physiology may carry the effects of family aggression from childhood into early adulthood.

Individuals experience many changes during the transition to adulthood, including situations such as moving out, going to college, getting a job and committing to a serious relationship. During this time, psychological and behavioral problems that began in childhood or adolescence may intensify.

El-Sheikh and her team previously studied how sleep and physiological responses to family aggression can affect the health of children and adolescents. They are using the same model to study that subject in 23-to 25-year-olds, to determine whether our past still affects us after we move away from the aggressive environment.

Family aggression exists as a spectrum, including harsh parenting and marital aggression. Whether that aggression is short-term or chronic, it can influence antisocial and risky behavior, anxiety and depression, and impaired social and mental functioning. Research suggests that family aggression also predicts biological processes, such as autonomic nervous system (ANS) dysregulation (e.g., the “fight or flight” response) and sleep problems.

ANS responses and sleep can partially protect against the negative effects of family aggression in the short-term, but in the long term may show the negative impact of chronic family aggression, even across a major developmental transition such as the move into early adulthood.

“One of the major questions of this study concerns the durability of protective biological processes when family aggression persists,” Auburn researcher Stephen Erath said. “Do they continue to provide protection or become part of the problem?”

The newly-funded study will measure health and adjustment outcomes across multiple facets of life, including bioregulatory (ANS and sleep), social (aggression in romantic relationships), cognitive (intellectual functioning), educational and vocational domains. These, in turn, may affect our overall health and behavior during early adulthood.

To identify ANS (dys)regulation, the researchers assess indicators of stress. One of the stress conditions examined is a mock job interview—a tense environment in which pressure is put on the participant—during which the team measures physiological responses to the situation. In other words, they are measuring things such as heart rate, sweating, etc.—ways your body physically reacts to stress and tries to regulate it. How one reacts may be an outcome of past family aggression’s effects on the mind and body.

The Auburn study is the first to examine how sleep and ANS responses shape the health and adjustment outcomes of exposure to family aggression from childhood through early adulthood. This research is on the cutting edge of advancing developmental science to aid in the prevention of negative consequences of family aggression. El-Sheikh and her colleagues have found that while sleep and ANS responses are the ways in which we see the consequences of family aggression play out, these processes are also protective measures against negative health outcomes of family aggression in childhood and adolescence. A healthy amount of sleep and regulated physical response to stress can improve our social, mental and physical health, which may ultimately lead to a healthier transition through the many changes of life.

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.