Unseen Scars: The Long-Term Impact of Childhood Trauma on Adult Mental Health

January 26, 2024   •  Posted in: 

We don’t know what, exactly, causes mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Why do some people get depressed, for example, while others don’t?

Although there is no singular cause of any mental health condition, researchers have found certain factors can put you at higher risk for developing mental health issues. One of those risk factors is childhood trauma.

Going through trauma as a child doesn’t only affect you when you’re young. The effects of childhood trauma can continue throughout your life and can put you at much higher risk for developing mental health issues in adulthood.

Could the unseen scars of childhood trauma be the root of your mental health struggles?

What is childhood trauma, and why does it happen?

Some people may think of childhood as an innocent time when we don’t have anything to worry about. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for too many children. Just like adults, children can go through traumatic experiences. And childhood trauma may be more common than most of us realize.

Reports show that up to two-thirds of children go through at least one traumatic event before their 16th birthday[1].

The most common type of childhood trauma is child maltreatment, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and child neglect. This type of trauma can have incredibly harmful effects on mental health because an attachment figure usually perpetrates the trauma. This can affect the child’s attachment style and harm future relationships.

In addition to child abuse and neglect, some other types of childhood trauma include:

  • Being witness to domestic violence
  • Community violence (like gang violence)
  • School shootings
  • Racism and institutional violence
  • Living in a war zone or being the victim of terrorism
  • Parental incarceration
  • Bullying
  • Foster care and forced familial separation
  • Surviving a natural disaster
  • Surviving a severe accident or illness
  • Refugee trauma and forced migration
  • Sex trafficking
  • Traumatic loss

This isn’t an exhaustive list; any experience that feels threatening to the child’s life or safety can be considered traumatic.

The long-term effects of childhood trauma on adults

Unfortunately, the experiences we go through as children don’t simply vanish when we get older. Childhood trauma continues to impact us throughout our lives, even into adulthood, and can affect outcomes like:

  • Mental health
  • Physical health
  • Economic status
  • Criminality and legal problems
  • Relationships and marital status
  • Employment

Life outcomes

Research shows the more exposure you have to traumatic events in your childhood, the more likely you are to face negative consequences later on in your life.

For example, people who went through childhood trauma are more likely to be incarcerated. In the U.S., over half of male inmates report being physically abused as children[2]. One study found over 90% of juveniles incarcerated for homicide were physically or sexually abused[3].

Adults who experienced trauma as children are also less likely to be well-functioning, identified as less likely to hold a job, have healthy relationships, and finish school, among other outcomes[4]. They’re more likely to have experienced homelessness and unemployment, engage in risky sexual behaviors, and generally have lower psychosocial functioning[5].

Health

Childhood trauma affects adult health in profound ways as well. Childhood trauma survivors are more likely to develop chronic health conditions as adults, including:

  • Abdominal obesity
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Glucose intolerance
  • Diabetes
  • Bone density issues
  • High or low cholesterol
  • Tobacco use
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Chronic pain
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Lung disease
  • Cancer[6]

Relationships

Childhood trauma, especially child sexual abuse, is highly linked to adverse effects on adult relationships.

Adults who were sexually abused as children are more likely to get divorced and less likely to be satisfied in their current marriages. They’re also more likely to be unfaithful in relationships[7].

This may be due to the way childhood trauma, especially attachment trauma (like abuse or neglect), impacts attachment style. Studies show adults who experienced trauma as children are more likely to have an insecure attachment style, including avoidant and anxious attachment styles[8].

Can childhood trauma cause mental illness in adulthood?

Unsurprisingly, adults who have survived childhood trauma are more likely to develop mental health issues as well. Childhood trauma has been linked to several mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, personality disorders, substance use disorder, and more.

Research shows childhood trauma has a neurobiological impact on children’s brains; in other words, childhood trauma changes the way your brain works. These changes in your brain could leave you more vulnerable to mental health issues as you grow older[9].

This doesn’t mean that every child who goes through trauma will have mental health issues when they get older. Childhood trauma isn’t a direct cause of any mental health condition, and there are plenty of children who show resilience against the effects of trauma. However, research does show people who’ve been through childhood trauma are more likely to develop mental health issues in adulthood.

Depression

Childhood trauma survivors are more likely to experience depression as adults. In one study, neglect and emotional abuse were the types of childhood trauma most closely related to adult depression[10]. Adults who were exposed to trauma as children are also dramatically more likely to have suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Another study found women who experience trauma during their teen years are more than twice as likely to become depressed during perimenopause[11].

PTSD and anxiety

Some people who’ve experienced childhood trauma can also develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or an anxiety disorder.

There is no apparent reason why some children develop PTSD after trauma while others don’t. It has nothing to do with weakness and more to do with certain factors that can both put you at higher risk – like having a genetic predisposition to mental health problems – or protect you – like having close friendships.

People who experience chronic trauma, like abuse, can develop something called complex PTSD, which affects their self-image and relationships.

Substance use disorder

People who’ve gone through trauma in childhood are also more likely to have problems with drug and alcohol addiction. Studies have shown an increasing risk of developing substance use disorder with every traumatic experience you face during childhood[12]. Children who go through trauma may grow up to use alcohol and drugs as a way to cope with the emotional effects of their trauma.

Personality disorders

There is a well-documented link between personality disorders (especially borderline personality disorder) and childhood trauma. We still don’t know whether childhood trauma directly causes personality disorders or whether there are shared factors (like a caregiver with a personality disorder) that can lead to both childhood trauma and the development of a personality disorder[13].

Psychosis

There are many risk factors for developing psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, many of which are biological. However, research shows that childhood trauma can increase the risk for psychosis. As we’ve already talked about, childhood trauma can also lead to co-occurring conditions like depression and substance use – which can make the experience of psychosis more debilitating[14].

Treatment for the mental health effects of childhood trauma

Thankfully, there are effective ways to treat the mental health effects of childhood trauma, even many years after the traumatic experiences. Just because you went through trauma as a child doesn’t mean your life is doomed. With the proper support, you can heal from these experiences and learn new ways of relating to yourself and others.

Some of the most effective treatments for childhood trauma include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • Dialectical behavior therapy
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Mind-body therapies like mindfulness
  • Express therapies like art therapy

It’s essential to choose a treatment provider who understands that mental health issues don’t happen in a vacuum. Every part of your life and your health is connected, and it’s natural for experiences that occurred in your past to continue to affect you now. If childhood trauma is at the root of your mental health struggles, there is help available.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we have a unique treatment program that’s specifically designed to help people heal from emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. All of our services are trauma-informed, and we have a deep understanding of how these traumatic experiences can send a ripple effect through the rest of your life.

We use a Whole Person Care approach to mental health treatment. This means we work with the knowledge that trauma recovery needs to happen on every level – physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and more. It’s not just about dealing with the symptoms on the surface. It’s about digging deep down and ensuring you’re healing.

With the proper treatment, you can heal from the trauma you endured as a child. You are more than what happened to you, and there is a new, brighter future waiting for you on the other side of trauma healing. Treatment is a gift your present-you can give to your past-you.

Contact us to learn more about our different programs and treatment approaches.


1 – https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/understanding-child-trauma
2 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3386595/
3 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18487523/
4 – https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/article-abstract/2713038
5 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3666315/
6 – https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2331205X.2019.1581447
7 – https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2006.00124.x
8 – https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10896-014-9588-3
9 – https://www.psychiatrist.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/15380_neurobiological-consequences-childhood-trauma.pdf
10 – https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/european-psychiatry/article/abs/role-of-specific-early-trauma-in-adult-depression-a-metaanalysis-of-published-literature-childhood-trauma-and-adult-depression/56A8A242CDE8AEF4A8B226811AB7DAC0
11 – https://www.pennmedicine.org/news/news-releases/2017/march/trauma-and-stress-in-teen-years-increases-risk-of-depression-during-menopause
12 – https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/2331205X.2019.1581447
13 – https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2013-44247-012
14 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31708041/

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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