The anxious state of America is affecting babies in the womb — here’s the science


Americans are grappling with high levels of stress, and some certainly handle it better than others. But recent research suggests that many Americans are living with brains that were hard-wired to worry during our earliest days.

Since the early 2000s, scientists have started to shift their attention to epigenetics, which is the study of how our genes express themselves. Genes are always "designed to manufacture and put out stuff in the body," Daniel P. Keating, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan, said in a phone interview. But that process can get messed up if we experience unusual stress in the first year of our lives — or if our biological mothers experience it while pregnant. The end result is what he calls a "stress epidemic" in the United States.

"We're not talking about everyday stress, but we're not talking about deep trauma, either," Keating said. Though trauma does affect the mind, mothers and infants navigating less-extreme circumstances can still be triggered.

Keating recently published a book on this, called Born Anxious: The Lifelong Impact of Early Life Adversity. His argument is that many Americans are stuck in a vicious cycle where increasing inequality drives stress very early on in our lives, and that stress wires us to be in a constant state of worry.

Why you might be so stressed

Normally, when we're triggered, our brain releases cortisol to help us realize the critical moment at hand — it's a necessary function for survival. But when we become abnormally stressed in our first year of life or as baby in the womb, a gene that regulates our stress system by reeling that cortisol back in becomes disabled, sort of like an off-switch. Then our day-to-day becomes riddled with worry; in other words, cortisol overtakes us.

"The signal to the infant is: It's a dangerous world out there, so you want to be on alert 24/7," Keating said. "There are some parts of the world where that's useful, like if you live in a conflict zone or a super dangerous neighborhood ... But when you're not running away from a tiger or in battle, you're reacting to regular social situations with this similar worry."

Inequality may be the cause

There could be a link between inequality and this phenomenon. One indicator of the links between stress, inequality and rewiring of the brain is the relationship between America's growing inequality and increases in self-reported diseases strongly tied to stress. According to a report published by The Hamilton Project, an economic policy group, overall health and stress-linked ailments such as obesity were self-reported at higher rates among all income levels during the period of 2009 to 2014, compared to a previous period of 1976 to 1980. Between these two periods, inequality was also rising rapidly. 

Basically, it might be a problem that's bigger than any individual, though the low income group tended to report the worst health.

Low-income individuals may be worried about food or housing, Keating explained, but inequality could have a similar effect on the middle class and the wealthy, too. 

"Even if you're okay at the moment, it's the notion that things could go badly at any time," he said.

Avoiding unusual stress during pregnancy is a protective measure, but for people who struggle with the very-real issues of poverty, unstable housing, health issues or other serious hardships, relaxing is not an easy task — if possible at all.

It's bleak, but there is some good news: None of this means doom. Even those with a body wired to worry can help themselves through mindfulness exercises or by finding a small network of quality friends.

"The feel-good neural hormones, serotonin and oxytocin, are produced through social connection," Keaton said, "and [they] act as counteractants to cortisol ... There are things that can be done."

Of course, a bigger-picture solution might be an America with more equality and less stress, too.