Could your stress levels today be picked up from mother when you were a baby?

Infants absorb stress and anxiety from their mothers, says research. (pic courtesy of Serge Betasius Photography/

Infants absorb stress and anxiety from their mothers, says research. (pic courtesy of Serge Betasius Photography/

Now and again, a new piece of research comes along that explains so much that my counselling clients are experiencing today. Such pieces of research pretty much sum up the reason why psychotherapy exists: to help heal the wounds of our past and come to terms with what was painful on our childhoods.

The issue with the past, however, is that so much of that early wounding happens in a pre-verbal phase. It’s when we are tiny babies when we don’t have words to express what’s going on that some of those hurts can happen. People may think that babies won’t know the difference. But, as adults having a crisis in later life, feeling unable to cope, we can often feel left with an unease that something isn’t right. We just can’t put it into words. It’s just a feeling that keeps playing out in unhelpful behaviours, situations and cycles that they feel stuck in. And some of those behaviours and feelings may be in response to the nurturing – or otherwise – we experienced as infants.

So, what’s this piece of research that I feel resonates with the wounds in my clients? Babies and tiny children can absorb their mothers’ stress levels almost by osmosis, says a study by the University of California, San Francisco, reported by the UK’s Daily Mail. In other words, stress from mothers can be contagious. Babies intuit touch, smell and voice to tune into their mothers’ emotions – and then absorb those feelings into their little bodies.

The study – taken of infants’ heart rates after their mothers had been subjected to a stressful situations (doing a speech to a room of people: some mothers were welcome, some weren’t, and some spoke to an empty room). The babies whose mothers were stressed from the experience had increased heartbeats within minutes of being back in contact with them. The more stressed the mum, the more stressed the baby.

Lead researcher Sara Walters is quoted in the Daily Mail article saying: “Our earliest lessons about how to manage stress and strong negative emotions in our day-to-day lives occur in the parent-child relationship. Our research shows that infants ‘catch’ and embody the psychological residue of their mother’s stressful experiences.”

What is painful about this absorption of stress is that it is all unconscious as an adult. It may manifest itself in behaviours such as taking care of others, an inability to say no to unreasonable requests, and a co-dependence in relationships. It can also lead to avoidance of intimacy, for fear that the other person will ‘infect’ us with their feelings.

Psychodynamic therapy works with the unconscious, which can reveal itself in numerous ways in therapy – as a way to make unhelpful patterns and behaviours conscious. I am always aware when clients feel the need to ‘take care’ of me, and can relate that to a time as a child when they needed to take of their mother – or indeed feel responsible for her.

Working through in an empathic way, in therapy, can be one way to healing that very early stressful wounding as a tiny baby.

If you feel you need some support in healing your own wounds from childhood, email Karen on or call 07956 823501.

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