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About the speaker: Dr. Leslie Atkinson is Professor of Psychology, Toronto Metropolitan University. Much of his career was as clinician and administrator in developmental and psychiatric settings. His research focuses on early experience and associated biopsychosocial development. He has published over 190 articles and book chapters and edited two books on attachment theory.

The influence of early experience on stress physiology: Life course implications

Description: We are all familiar with the feeling of discomfort when challenge exceeds, or threatens to exceed, capacity; this is stress. But beyond subjective experience, stress is a biological phenomenon involving coordinated physiological reactivity that ultimately influences aspects of the brain’s architecture and function. This impact is possible because of the brain’s plasticity, particularly during the early years. The brain is experience-expectant, adapting to the specific environment it finds itself in (and expects to find itself in), for better or worse. Positive or resolvable stresses may build resilience, but frequent or chronic stress causes wear and tear on physiological stress systems, such that they become inflexible, unable to mount a robust response when needed, or to downregulate when threat ceases. In this presentation, I discuss the impact of early environmental exigencies, particularly in the context of caregiver-child relations, on biological stress systems. Quality of parenting is associated with flexibility of stress response, and with the “attunement” of caregiver and infant/toddler stress systems. I also discuss the particular importance of stress in the early years as it exerts a lifelong impact on physiology and chronic disease (psychiatric and physical) from childhood to senior adulthood.

By attending this workshop you will:

  1. Stress is both a subjective and a neurobiological phenomenon.
  2. Stress neurobiology is dependent on the social environment, especially parenting, in the early years.
  3. Difficult parenting affects parent-child physiological “attunement” in complex ways and undermines the child’s capacity to flexibly respond to stressors.
  4. Early life stress influences psychological wellbeing and physical disease, exerting its lifelong influence through social engagement, physiological regulation, and other factors.