Childhood trauma is well-known to have adverse effects on mental health into adulthood, but the nuances of these outcomes are not well understood. A study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders explores how childhood trauma impacts specific aspects of depression and anxiety over time.
Childhood trauma has long since been linked to increased mental health risks in adulthood, especially anxiety and depression. Despite this, there has been a lack of resources focused on parsing out which symptoms are related to childhood trauma, in addition to the relationship with diagnoses.
This study seeks to expand the literature on childhood trauma and mental illness by exploring differences in symptomology between people who have and have not experienced trauma and by measuring these symptoms over time.
“The state of knowledge on childhood trauma and clinical features of depression and anxiety was scarce and heavily relied on methodologically heterogeneous cross-sectional studies, focusing on a limited range of depressive/ anxiety symptoms, with largely understudied anxiety. Thus, understanding whether individuals with childhood trauma could be more vulnerable to developing specific symptoms of affective disorders was inconclusive,” Erika Kuzminskaite and colleagues wrote in their study.
The researchers utilized data from a longitudinal cohort of Dutch-fluent adults. At the baseline wave, there were 1,803 participants, which was reduced to 1,475 by the last wave, 6 years later. Childhood trauma was assessed at baseline by researchers. At each wave, depressive and anxiety symptoms were measured, as well as sociodemographic information and psychiatric medication status. Approximately half of the sample experienced some form of childhood trauma, while about 70% of the sample had a depression and/or anxiety disorder diagnosis.
Results showed that participants who had experienced childhood trauma showed increased severity of all anxiety and depressive symptoms, showing how grave the effects of childhood trauma are. The strongest increased symptomology for participants with trauma was seen in regard to mood/cognitive depressive symptoms.
“Exposure to childhood trauma may alter basic cognitive assumptions about the self and others, which over time may become a part of an individual’s personality,” the researchers explained. “Indeed, individuals with a history of childhood trauma are more often characterized by negative cognitive schemas and negative self-associations, which could explain the specific development of more severe mood/cognitive depression symptoms.”
Additionally, symptoms remained higher over the 6-year period for participants with trauma as opposed to participants without, showing the chronic nature of these effects. Participants without trauma showed a more rapid decline in symptomology over the years. Symptom severity for participants who experienced childhood trauma was increased for symptoms of depression over symptoms of anxiety, which is consistent with previous research on childhood trauma survivors.
This study took significant steps into delving into the nuances of childhood trauma’s effects on mental illness. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that recalling childhood trauma as an adult can be affected by memory and biases. Additionally, the sample was predominantly female and entirely Dutch-speaking, which could greatly limit generalizability.
“Future large-scale longitudinal projects are required to understand better the underlying childhood trauma mechanisms that bridge early trauma and future mental health outcomes,” Kuzminskaite and colleagues concluded. “Comprehensive screening for childhood trauma in clinical practice is essential to identify individuals at risk for a more severe and chronic course of affective disorders. These individuals may benefit from the development of personalized treatment planning (e.g., additional lifestyle-based intervention or intervention targeting stress system dysregulation).”
The study, “Childhood trauma and its impact on depressive and anxiety symptomatology in adulthood: A 6-year longitudinal study“, was authored by Erika Kuzminskaite, Christiaan H. Vinkers, Yuri Milaneschi, Erik J. Giltay, and Brenda W.J.H. Penninx.