How Childhood Trauma Affects Mental Health in Adulthood, According to Experts

From post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety to stroke, cancer, and heart conditions, childhood trauma is linked to multiple health problems.

Not all of us had the best childhood growing up. Instead of feeling loved and cared for, many of us cowered in fear and cried into the night. Sometimes, we didn't even know how to react to the helplessness that we felt. We wanted our caregivers to love us and instead they maltreated us and made us afraid of them. If you are one of those people who were subjected to trauma as a child then it could have affected your mental health as an adult too.

When you face traumatic experiences as a child there is a negative impact on brain development. The painful experiences could have been anything ranging from emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, neglect, and the sudden loss of a parent or caregiver, according to Pscyhlopaedia. Sarah Baracz, Associate lecturer, Macquarie University, said that when someone has experienced early life trauma they are at risk of developing psychological and behavioral problems later in life. Those individuals experience higher rates of depression, suicidality, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and aggressive behavior.

What is trauma?

In terms of psychology, it is defined as incidents that make us fear for our lives or of being seriously injured or being in danger, says Andrea Roberts, a research scientist with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It could be an abusive childhood, a car accident, or losing a parent. Many more examples exist.

"By abuse, we often mean things that are a lot milder than things people typically think of as abuse. It might include being hit with a hard object, like a whip, a belt, or a paddle," says Roberts. "The behavior doesn't necessarily need to be illegal to induce a traumatic response."

The incident doesn't need to have been life-threatening but the child's perception of it could still be so. "While a child's life may not have actually been in danger, the child may have seen it as life-threatening," says Dr. Kerry Ressler, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School. Those who have had a traumatic experience could be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychiatric condition.

Health risks

If you have experienced three or more negative experiences, called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), the risk of developing physical and mental health problems go up. There are a host of problems connected to childhood trauma, from adult depression to PTSD and other psychiatric disorders, and medical problems like cancer, stroke, heart attack, and obesity. "Trauma pushes your ability to cope, so if you have a predisposition toward anxiety, for example, it may push you over the edge," says Roberts.

There are a bunch of behavior problems that follow us into the future like internalizing (anxiety, depression) and externalizing (aggression, acting out) behavior, according to a research paper, Childhood Trauma and Chronic Illness in Adulthood: Mental Health and Socioeconomic Status as Explanatory Factors and Buffers. With poor mental health comes poor physical health as well.

Other problems

People who have experienced more than one type of childhood trauma were more likely to be unemployed or have job loss in their family. When it was compared to those who haven't experienced any maltreatment as a child, adults who experienced physical abuse, mental abuse, or severe neglect in childhood "were more than twice as likely to fall below the federal poverty level in adulthood and to live in a household with income in the lowest quartile of the distribution."

So, the negative behaviors you have experienced as a child could shape your behavior as an adult, how you cope with stress, your income level, and how healthy you are going to be physically.


Disclaimer : This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.