What mental illnesses develop from trauma?
Trauma is the lasting emotional response that often results from living through a distressing event. Experiencing a traumatic event can harm a person’s sense of safety, sense of self, and ability to regulate emotions and navigate relationships. Long after the traumatic event occurs, people with trauma can often feel shame, helplessness, powerlessness and intense fear.
Trauma is a term used to describe the challenging emotional consequences that living through a distressing event can have for an individual. Traumatic events can be difficult to define because the same event may be more traumatic for some people than for others.
However, traumatic events experienced early in life, such as abuse, neglect and disrupted attachment, can often be devastating. Equally challenging can be later life experiences that are out of one’s control, such as a serious accident, being the victim of violence, living through a natural disaster or war, or sudden unexpected loss.
When thoughts and memories of the traumatic event don’t go away or get worse, they may lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which can seriously disrupt a person’s ability to regulate their emotions and maintain healthy relationships.
Signs & Symptoms
A traumatic event can be:
- a recent, single traumatic event (e.g., car crash, violent assault)
- a single traumatic event that occurred in the past (e.g., a sexual assault, the death of a spouse or child, an accident, living through a natural disaster or a war)
- a long-term, chronic pattern (e.g., ongoing childhood neglect, sexual or physical abuse).
A person who has experienced a traumatic event might develop either simple or complex PTSD:
- Experiencing a single traumatic event is most likely to lead to simple PTSD.
- Complex PTSD tends to result from long-term, chronic trauma and can affect a person’s ability to form healthy, trusting relationships. Complex trauma in children is often referred to as «developmental trauma.»
Diagnosis & Treatment
Some common approaches to trauma therapy include cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, sensorimotor therapy, eye movement and desensitization reprocessing (EMDR), and pharmacological treatment.
More generally, patients often benefit greatly from treatment approaches that are «trauma-informed.» Trauma-informed care refers to therapeutic approaches that validate and are tailored to the unique experience of a person coping with PTSD. It understands the symptoms of trauma to be coping strategies that have developed in reaction to a traumatic experience. Non-judgmentally, it recognizes that a person with PTSD may have behavioural, emotional or physical adaptations that have developed in specific response to overwhelming stressors.
Related Programs and Services
- Treatment at CAMH: Access CAMH
- Help for families from CAMH
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Information for Refugees and New Immigrants (PDF)
- Women: What Do These Signs Have in Common?
Childhood Trauma: Understanding How Trauma Impacts Mental Health and Wellness
As much as parents try to shield their children from all kinds of frightening, dangerous or life-threatening events, the reality is that these things can still happen. Even when children aren’t physically imperiled, they may still struggle with mental and emotional trauma, which can sometimes stay with them for the duration of their lives. Children living through the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, may experience trauma from being pulled out of school, being separated from friends or family members, and worrying about contracting the virus.
Childhood trauma is more common than most people imagine. In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that two-thirds of all children report some kind of traumatic incident by age 16. These occurrences can lead to complicated mental health issues, but thankfully, treatment options are available to help patients of all ages deal with the lingering effects of their childhood
What Is Childhood Trauma?
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) defines a traumatic event as any scary, dangerous or violent event that poses a threat to the physical safety, well-being, or bodily integrity of a child. Sometimes, traumatic events may directly involve the child. Other times, the event involves the parent, guardian, or another caregiver. Threats to the physical safety of a loved one may be just as traumatic as direct threats to the child.
These experiences can trigger strong physical and emotional responses, which may persist long after the event passes. Some children develop child traumatic stress: a visceral response to childhood trauma that may affect their daily lives and emotional well-being for years or even decades after the triggering event.
Types of Childhood Trauma
A child may experience a number of potentially traumatic events, including the following:
- Abuse (sexual, physical, psychological)
- Life-threatening accidents or illnesses
- Violence in school or the community
- Domestic violence (witnessing or experiencing)
- National disasters
- Acts of terror
- Public health crises such as COVID-19
- Loss of a loved one, especially when sudden or violent in nature
- Refugee or war experiences
Signs of Childhood Trauma
Parents, teachers, and medical providers should be alert to the signs and symptoms of childhood trauma. These signs can vary according to the age of the child.
Signs of Childhood Trauma in Preschool Children
- Fear of separation from parents or guardians
- Poor eating habits and sudden weight loss
- Persistent cries or screams
Signs of Childhood Trauma in Elementary Schoolchildren
- Having feelings of guilt and shame
- Becoming fearful or anxious
- Having sleeping problems
- Having difficulty concentrating
Signs of Childhood Trauma in Middle and High School Children
- Feelings of alienation
- Eating disorders
- Self-harming behaviors
Additional Resources on the Types and Signs of Childhood Trauma
For more information on childhood trauma and its triggers and signs, consider the following resources:
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Trauma Types. Explore some of the specific types and triggers of childhood trauma.
- Child Mind Institute, Signs of Trauma in Children. Learn more about how to recognize when a child has experienced something traumatic.
- com, Child Trauma FAQs. Get answers to some of the most common questions about the trauma that children experience.
- Head Start Early Childhood Learning and Knowledge Center, Signs and Symptoms ofChildhood Trauma. Take a closer look at common signs of trauma.
How Childhood Trauma Impacts Mental Health and Wellness
Each traumatic experience is unique, and thus childhood trauma impacts its victims in different ways. With that said, traumatic experiences can often have effects on a child that linger through adolescence and adulthood.
Developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Most children are exposed to a traumatic event at some point, and while these incidents usually result in at least momentary distress, some children return to normal functioning within a short time. In the most extreme cases, however, a traumatic event can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the National Center for PTSD, up to 15% of girls and 6% of boys develop PTSD following a traumatic event.
PTSD is a mental health condition that can impact children in different ways. Some children find themselves replaying the traumatic incident in their minds, relieving the stress and agony. Others reenact the traumatic incident in their play. Still, others avoid any person or situation that might remind them of their trauma. Some children may also believe that they missed warning signs about the traumatic incident and therefore become hypervigilant to the point of obsession.
Children with PTSD may experience a range of symptoms, including the following:
- Anger and increased aggression
- Mistrust of others
- Low self-image
- Self-harming behaviors
Other Effects of Childhood Trauma
Even children who don’t exhibit the signs of PTSD can still struggle with various behavioral issues following a traumatic event. Some examples are:
- Difficulty focusing or paying attention
- Changes in eating habits
- New fears or phobias
- Increased obsession with safety
- Increased focus on death and dying
- Insomnia and fitful sleeping
- Loss of interest in usual hobbies and activities
When left untreated, childhood trauma can have effects that last into adulthood.
- According to Psychology Today, traumatic experiences “can burrow down deep into the body, contributing to chronic illness.” Data from a 2019 survey showed a strong correlation between unresolved trauma and the risk of cancer.
- Childhood trauma that involves sexual abuse can lead to long-term sexual dysfunction, including a higher likelihood of sexually risky behaviors.
- Trauma can also lead to long-term cognitive difficulties and academic challenges. Children who have gone through trauma “may show deficits in language development and abstract reasoning skills,” says the NCTSN. “Many children who have experienced complex trauma have learning difficulties that may require support in the academic environment.”
Additional Resources on the Mental Health Effects of Childhood Trauma
To learn more about the link between childhood trauma and mental health and wellness, consider these resources:
- Harvard Health Publishing, Past Trauma May Haunt Your Future Health. Find out more about the ongoing effects of trauma.
- Psychology Today, “4 Ways ThatChildhood TraumaImpacts Adults”. Discover more about the ways trauma lingers into adulthood.
- Verywell Mind, “Treating the Effects ofChildhood Trauma”. Explore some of the ways trauma can affect children throughout their lives.
- Population Reference Bureau, “Childhood TraumaHas Lifelong Consequences for Women”. Consider how women, in particular, can be affected by traumatic experiences.
Strategies for Addressing Childhood Trauma
While the effects of childhood trauma can be long-lasting, multiple strategies are available to those who’ve experienced trauma, allowing them to address their trauma, recover from it and live a healthy life. Mental health professionals, including psychiatric nurse practitioners, can work with their patients to identify the best recovery strategies.
One way to deal with childhood trauma is to speak with a counselor or therapist. Those who’ve gone through trauma often internalize blame and guilt, potentially leading to low self-esteem. A counselor can help patients allocate blame more judiciously, develop the skill sets required for self-compassion, and learn other skills to grapple with weighty or complicated emotions.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Following a traumatic episode, children sometimes develop negative behavioral or emotional responses as a way to cope with their trauma. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based approach to unlearning these negative responses, training the brain to deal with trauma, stress, and grief in a healthier, more productive way.
Mindfulness meditation may not be the best solution for everyone, but in some cases, it can provide an opportunity to increase present-moment awareness, as opposed to constantly dwelling on the past. Additionally, mindfulness meditation may increase self-compassion and also improve the individual’s ability to self-regulate (that is, the ability to keep one’s emotions in check).
In some cases, a psychiatric nurse practitioner or other medical professional may recommend medications to help cope with some of the effects of childhood trauma. Antianxiety medications and antidepressants may both be viable options, depending on the patient’s specific symptoms.
Additional Resources on Strategies for Recovering from Childhood Trauma
To find out more about the best ways to deal with childhood trauma, take a look at the following resources:
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Interventions. Get more information about clinical interventions for health issues related to trauma.
- Boston Children’s Hospital, Treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children. Find out how medical professionals treat childhood PTSD.
- Verywell Mind, “Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Kids”. Learn about the benefits of Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) for treating PTSD in children.
Resources on Childhood Trauma
For children and the parents of children who’ve experienced traumatic events, the following resources may provide insight, support and clinical solutions:
- net, PTSD Hotline. Find out more about the benefits of calling a PTSD hotline, and get direct help from mental health professionals.
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Get Help Now. Connect with a crisis hotline to help address mental health issues.
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network, COVID-19 Resources. View fact sheets, webinars and other resources for recognizing and coping with childhood trauma caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Child Mind Institute, Trauma and Resilience Service. Get resources to aid in understanding childhood trauma.
- PTSD Alliance, PTSD Alliance Members. Consult organizations that offer support to those who’ve been through a traumatic experience.
- GoodTherapy, “7 Ways to Help a Child Heal from Trauma”. Find out what parents can do to help their children recover from a traumatic experience.
Moving Forward from Trauma
Traumatic incidents are all too common and can have long-lasting effects on the children who experience them. The right intervention from a mental health professional, however, makes it possible not only to move forward from trauma but also to live a healthy, fulfilling life.
Mental Disorders Caused by Trauma
Traumatic experiences are more common than you think. According to the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Alliance, more than 70 percent of Americans have experienced trauma in their lifetimes. In America, eight million people will experience a traumatic event each year, according to the National Center for PTSD.
Examples of traumas include sexual assault, harassment, molestation, or anything forced against your will. The same is true for physical assaults. Other traumas can consist of being a victim of a natural disaster. Hurricanes, tornadoes, and floods can create massive damage in your life. Whether they cause lasting damage or not, serious accidents can cause lingering, frightening memories. Even the loss of a loved one unexpectedly can create grief so overwhelming it becomes a trauma in your life.
Traumatic experiences can lead to mental disorders, like the ones below:
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
One in eleven Americans, or 3.5%, are diagnosed with PTSD at some point in their lifetime. Symptoms of PTSD fall into four categories : intrusion, avoidance, alterations in cognition and mood, and alterations in arousal and reactivity.
Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)
Among those who experience a traumatic event, between 6% and 33% will develop acute stress disorder within one month after the trauma. Symptoms of ASD may overlap with PTSD. However, those with ASD may feel like they have out-of-body experiences and may be confused about where they are and what is happening.
Secondhand trauma may also be known as vicarious traumatization. The trauma is experienced by someone else, but you are also affected by witnessing that person going through the trauma. An example is when a child watches a parent be repeatedly physically abused. While they are not abused, seeing someone they love get hurt is just as traumatizing.
Symptoms of secondhand trauma may include guilt, fear, anger, cynicism, and feeling like everything you try to do to help is never good enough.
Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)
Reactive attachment disorder happens when an emotional connection is not made between a child and their primary caregiver. This often happens with children who have been placed in children’s homes or separated from their parents for a long time, especially in the years before age 5. An example is when parents are incarcerated or are actively engaged in criminal behavior that takes priority.
Children with RAD are often withdrawn and appear to have depressive symptoms. They may also appear irritable, fearful, or have other negative emotions when there is no apparent reason to feel that way.
Disinhibited Social Engagement Disorder (DSED)
Children with DSED have no trouble meeting and engaging with strangers but cannot form emotional bonds with those close to them. DSED is similar to RAD, except that children with DSED are more outgoing and can socialize in groups.
DSED can have a dangerous side, like when a child has no fear of being alone with a stranger. They blindly trust people they do not know.
Adjustment Disorder (AD)
Adjustment disorder is typically diagnosed within three months after experiencing a traumatic event. AD refers to the inability to cope with symptoms of the trauma. Sometimes, the reactive symptoms to the trauma are more extreme than they should be.
Symptoms often include nervousness, anxiety, crying, withdrawal from people, and thoughts of suicide. Others may lack appetite, sleep disturbances, and feelings of hopelessness.
Other and Unspecified Trauma and Stressor Related Disorders
This category is used when someone doesn’t meet the complete diagnostic criteria for other trauma disorders but shows signs of one or more. More time may be needed to confirm the accurate diagnosis.
Treatments for Mental Disorders Caused by Trauma
Typically, a combination of medication and therapies are recommended to treat mental health disorders caused by trauma. Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications are often used for treatment, along with treatment with a licensed mental health professional. Your therapist will utilize behavioral therapies, including the following:
The American Psychological Association recommends cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to treat PTSD because the goal is to change your thinking, which will change the way you act or react. Cognitive processing is designed to replace negative thoughts with healthier, more realistic ones.
EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing is a treatment provided by a certified EMDR therapist who completes extensive training. Your therapist will help you decrease the vividness of the trauma and detach emotions associated with the trauma using eye movements.
The Trauma Resilience Model of therapy teaches you new ways to deal with stressful events. You don’t have to repeat the same cycle of negative emotions that lead to negative behaviors.
Post-Induction Therapy Model is a unique treatment for those with childhood traumas which may now find themselves in co-dependent and other attachment disorders. With some traumas, our emotional development is hindered. While the body grows, emotions remain at the age of the trauma. With this therapy, you can process your trauma and quickly regain emotional maturity.
Written Exposure Therapy is a newer treatment in which a therapist gives you specific instructions that guide you in writing about your trauma . You will also be directed in writing about the thoughts and feelings surrounding the trauma. While this is not considered a front-line therapy, it can be beneficial as a supplement to the other treatments.
Who Is at Risk for a Mental Disorder Caused by Trauma?
Not everyone who experiences trauma will develop a mental health disorder. Two or more people can survive a traumatic experience, and one will develop a trauma disorder while the other may not seem phased by the event.
While there are no conclusive explanations for why this happens, common risk factors are found among those with trauma disorders. Risk factors include having another mental illness, having experienced previous trauma, misuse of alcohol or drugs, and the lack of a sound support system.
If you, or someone you know, have experienced trauma and are dealing with unexpected symptoms, reach out for help today. Our trauma specialists are available around-the-clock to take your call and help you start recovery.