How 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 violence, bullying, natural disasters, medical events, physical abuse, sexual abuse, terrorism, death and more. 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).

How is childhood trauma linked to adult mental health?

Traumatic events that occur in our early life often lead to social cognitive problems. In other words, the way we process information about social interactions is significantly affected if we have experienced a traumatic event and can cause difficulties with emotional regulation and social functioning. The way each of us copes with a stressful situation is also influenced by other factors including our genes and coping responses. For example, variations in oxytocin in the brain (often referred to as the “love hormone”) affect our relationship with stress.

According to Sarah Baracz, Associate Lecturer at Macquarie University, early life stress can impact our oxytocin systems by changing levels of the hormone in the brain’s hypothalamus and amygdala, two regions responsible for emotional regulation. Over time, these changes affect behaviours and cause us to become less capable of coping with stress.

The good news is that not all children who experience trauma will go on to develop a mental illness. With the proper treatment, children can recover from post traumatic stress and continue on to lead happy, healthy lives.

Treatment for Childhood Trauma

If you have a child who has suffered a trauma, it’s critical to seek professional treatment as soon as the symptoms appear.

There are two primary approaches to treating childhood PTSD:

1) Medication

While medication is not a standalone treatment, it can help children feeling severe anxiety or fear to feel calmer as they recover and practice other methods of therapy. The most common medications for treating childhood PTSD are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), atypical antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications.

2) Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy can teach a child suffering after a traumatic event to develop coping strategies and positive behaviours. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is widely used to treat PTSD because the treatment is trauma-focused—meaning, the event that caused the trauma is at the centre of the treatment.

If you believe your child is suffering from a trauma, or you think you may be suffering from a mental illness as the result of childhood trauma, it’s important to remember that it is never too late to seek help from a professional. Take the first step towards a happy, healthy life and book a free consultation with Your Counselling today.