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The role of trauma in mental health

Research has shown that trauma is closely intertwined with various mental health and behavioral conditions.1,2

Traumatic stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal event—not just from a catastrophic event, but from persistent stress or loss.2

Trauma is complicated and can stem from a variety of circumstances, such as childhood abuse or neglect, war/violence, medical interventions, physical/emotional/sexual abuse, accidents/natural disasters, grief and loss, witnessing acts of violence, intergenerational trauma, and more.1

Infographic of a brain filled with words, including TRAUMA, ANXIETY, KIDS, TRAUMA, PTSD, ABUSE VICTIM, PTSD, FEAR, FLASHBACKS, VETERAN

Trauma affects the brain and the body

When trauma is not addressed, it can worsen a person’s overall health and well-being. Childhood trauma can have a lasting affect through adulthood.2

Individuals who have experienced trauma are more likely to develop mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, panic attacks, schizophrenia, and substance use disorders.2,3

The Impact of Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma has been repeatedly linked to mental health conditions and self-harm in adults.4,5    
Click each box below to see the connection between childhood trauma and a specific condition or self-destructive behavior.

Bipolar Disorder

An estimated 82% of individuals with bipolar disorder (BD) have experienced childhood trauma.6 Compared to the general population, people with BD are more than 2.5 times more likely to have been exposed to childhood trauma.6

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Adults with major depressive disorder experienced double the incidence of early childhood trauma compared with adults not diagnosed with depression.7

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Panic Attacks

Individuals who have experienced physical or psychological trauma during early childhood years are prone to anxiety and panic attacks in their adult years. Panic attacks and PTSD can also occur together. Approximately 69% of individuals seeking treatment for PTSD meet the criteria for panic attacks.3

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Childhood adversity has been associated with an increased risk of PTSD.8 It’s estimated that 6 out of every 100 people in the United States will have PTSD at some point in their lives.9

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In a 2019 review of studies, researchers found that childhood trauma increased the risk of developing schizophrenia, a neuropsychiatric disorder. Childhood trauma is associated with impaired working memory and executive function (eg, self-control, planning, critical thinking and problem-solving, attention) 
in patients with schizophrenia.10,11

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Self-harm involves injuring or abusing one’s own body. People who engage in self-harm frequently have a history of childhood trauma or sexual abuse.12 The results of one meta-analysis indicate that people who had experienced childhood mistreatment were approximately 3.5 times more likely to engage in self-injury than those who did not.13

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  • References:


    National Council for Mental Wellbeing. How to manage trauma infographic. Accessed October 12, 2023.

  • 2. 

    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Tip 57: trauma-informed care in behavioral health services. Accessed October 12, 2023.

  • 3. 

    Berenz EC, York TP, Bing-Canar H, et al. Time course of panic disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder onsets. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2019;54(5):639-647. doi:10.1007/s00127-018-1559-1

  • 4. 

    The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. About child trauma. Accessed October 12, 2023.

  • 5. 

    Copeland WE, Shanahan L, Hinesley J, et al. Association of childhood trauma exposure with adult psychiatric disorders and functional outcomes. JAMA Netw Open. 2018;1(7):e184493. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.4493

  • 6. 

    Rowe AL, Perich T, Meade T. Cumulative trauma in bipolar disorder: an examination of prevalence and outcomes across the lifespan. J Affect Disord. 2023;327:254-261. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2022.12.041

  • 7. 

    Williams LM, Debattista C, Duchemin AM, Schatzberg AF, Nemeroff CB. Childhood trauma predicts antidepressant response in adults with major depression: data from the randomized international study to predict optimized treatment for depression. Transl Psychiatry. 2016;6(5):e799. doi:10.1038/tp.2016.61

  • 8. 

    Brady KT, Back SE. Childhood trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder, and alcohol dependence. Alcohol Res. 2012;34(4):408-413. Accessed March 1, 2024.

  • 9. 

    U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD. How common is PTSD in adults? Accessed October 12, 2023.

  • 10. 

    Popovic D, Schmitt A, Kaurani L, et al. Childhood trauma in schizophrenia: current findings and research perspectives. Front Neurosci. 2019;13:274. doi:10.3389/fnins.2019.00274

  • 11. 

    U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Administration for Children & Families Executive function. Accessed October 23, 2023.

  • 12. 

    U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. PTSD: National Center for PTSD. Self-harm and trauma. Accessed January 16, 2024.

  • 13. 

    Liu RT, Scopelliti KM, Pittman SK, Zamora AS. Childhood maltreatment and non-suicidal self-injury: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet Psychiatry. 2018;5(1):51-64. doi:10.1016/S2215-0366(17)30469-8