How Childhood Trauma Affects Mental Health in Adulthood

childhood trauma affects mental health in adulthood

When we feel intensely threatened by an event that we are involved in or witness as a child, the US National Child Traumatic Stress Network calls that event a trauma. According to the NCTSN, traumatic events can occur as a result of many things:

  • violence
  • bullying
  • natural disasters
  • medical events
  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • terrorism
  • death

Research shows that experiencing trauma as a child can lead to significant mental health challenges in our adult years. According to a 2018 study, there is a significant correlation between childhood trauma and major psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Can childhood trauma cause mental illness?

Childhood trauma can cast a long shadow over our mental health, well into adulthood. This enduring impact is rooted in how traumatic events in early life create social-cognitive problems later – essentially, the way we process information about social interactions can be profoundly affected by our experiences with trauma. This can manifest as difficulties in emotional regulation and social functioning.

Factors affecting childhood trauma and mental health

1) Genetics

Research shows that individuals who have experienced childhood trauma may have altered brain structures and connectivity patterns, particularly in regions associated with emotional processing and regulation, such as the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. These changes can result in heightened emotional reactivity, impaired impulse control, and a diminished ability to manage stress effectively.

2) Coping mechanisms

Some individuals may develop maladaptive coping strategies (like substance abuse, self-harm, or avoidance) in response to the emotional difficulties caused by traumatic experiences. These strategies, while initially providing relief, may end up contributing to the development of mental health disorders later in life.

How does childhood trauma affect mental health?

Sarah Baracz, an Associate Lecturer at Macquarie University, researches how early life stressors can significantly impact our mental health by disrupting oxytocin systems. Oxytocin is the “love hormone”, found in the brain’s hypothalamus and amygdala, two regions responsible for emotional regulation.

When a child experiences trauma, these oxytocin levels are disrupted – and so are its stress- and anxiety-reducing effects when creating bonds, trust, and social connections. It can no longer regulate emotional responses effectively.

Over time, this has profound consequences on social behavior, stress management, and emotional well-being. These may manifest as symptoms of various mental health disorders, including anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Understanding these neurobiological mechanisms is the first step toward providing potential treatments.

Overcoming mental disorders caused by childhood trauma

There is hope for those affected by such trauma and conditions, though. Not all children who experience trauma will develop a mental illness, and for those who do, recovery is possible with the right support and professional treatment.

Providing affected people with a safe and nurturing environment as early as possible, coupled with professional interventions as needed, can help them process their experiences and develop healthier coping mechanisms. Combined with the support of a caring, empathetic community of family and friends, many people have overcome past events that seemed insurmountable.


Treatment for Mental Illness Caused by Childhood Trauma

If you have a child who has suffered a trauma, the best and most impactful thing you can do is seek professional treatment as soon as the symptoms of childhood post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) appear. There are two primary approaches to treating this condition.

Medication for Children with PTSD

While medication isn’t a standalone solution, it is often a valuable treatment for children experiencing severe anxiety or fear as a result of trauma. These medications help children feel less stressed or anxious as they work through recovery.

(Note: In Canada, therapists and psychologists cannot prescribe these medications. You must see a psychiatrist or a specific medical specialist, to whom we can provide referrals as needed.)

The most common medications prescribed for treating childhood PTSD include:

  • Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which work by increasing the levels of serotonin in the brain. This improves mood and reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Atypical antidepressants, which have different mechanisms of action compared to SSRIs but can also be effective in managing symptoms related to PTSD.
  • Anti-anxiety medications, typically used on a short-term basis to provide relief from overwhelming anxiety or panic, until other therapeutic interventions take effect.

These medications should always be used in conjunction with therapy, under the supervision of a qualified mental health professional.

Therapy for Children with PTSD

Psychotherapy is a fundamental aspect of treating childhood PTSD, offering children the tools to develop coping strategies and positive behaviors. In particular, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) stands out as a widely used and effective approach in treating PTSD in children.

CBT is a trauma-focused therapy, which places the traumatic event at the center of the treatment process. Using gradual exposure in a controlled, safe, and structured environment, it helps children confront and process this experience. Then, they learn to identify and challenge their previous negative thought patterns and behaviours, reducing their intensity.

CBT also gives children essential coping skills, stress management techniques, and strategies for regulating their emotions. They regain a sense of control, paving the way for recovery and a healthier future.


When to Seek Help for Childhood Trauma

If you suspect that your child is suffering from trauma – or if you, as an adult, believe you may be grappling with effects stemming from a childhood experience – seeking help is always a valid and valuable choice. Your mental health matters. It’s never too late, and healing and recovery are possible at any stage of life.

At Your Counselling, our team is here to support you on this journey. We offer free consultations to help you take that first step towards a brighter future – so reach out and start the healing process today!