Childhood trauma is well known to have adverse effects on mental health in adulthood, but the nuances of these findings are not well understood. A study published in the Affective Disorders Diary explores how childhood trauma affects specific aspects of depression and anxiety over time.
Childhood trauma has long been linked to increased mental health risks in adulthood, particularly anxiety and depression. Despite this, there has been a lack of resources focused on analyzing symptoms related to childhood trauma, in addition to the relationship to diagnoses.
This study aims 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 measuring these symptoms over time.
“The state of knowledge on childhood trauma and the clinical features of depression and anxiety was sparse and relied heavily on methodologically heterogeneous cross-sectional studies, focusing on a limited range of depressive/anxiety symptoms, with a largely understudied anxiety, so understanding whether people with childhood trauma might be more vulnerable to developing specific symptoms of affective disorders was inconclusive,” Erika Kuzminskaite and colleagues wrote in their study.
The researchers used data from a longitudinal cohort of fluent Dutch-speaking adults. In the baseline wave, there were 1,803 participants, which was reduced to 1,475 in the last wave, 6 years later. Childhood trauma was initially assessed by the researchers. At each wave, depressive and anxiety symptoms were measured, as well as sociodemographic information and psychiatric medication status. About half of the sample experienced some form of childhood trauma, while about 70% of the sample had a diagnosis of depression and/or an anxiety disorder.
The results showed that participants who had experienced childhood trauma had increased severity of all anxiety and depressive symptoms, showing how severe the effects of childhood trauma are. The strongest increased symptomatology in traumatized participants was seen for mood/cognitive depressive symptoms.
“Exposure to childhood trauma can alter basic cognitive assumptions about self and others, which over time can become part of an individual’s personality,” the researchers explained. “Indeed, people 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 symptoms of mood/cognitive depression.”
Additionally, symptoms remained higher over the 6-year period for traumatized participants as opposed to non-traumatized participants, showing the chronic nature of these effects. Participants without trauma showed a more rapid decline in symptomatology over the years. Symptom severity in participants with childhood trauma increased for symptoms of depression relative to symptoms of anxiety, consistent with previous research on survivors of childhood trauma.
This study took important steps to delve into the nuances of the effects of childhood trauma on mental illness. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One such limitation is that remembering childhood trauma in adulthood 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 needed to better understand the underlying mechanisms of childhood trauma that link early trauma and future mental health outcomes,” Kuzminskaite and colleagues conclude. “Comprehensive screening for childhood trauma in clinical practice is essential to identify those at risk for the more severe and chronic course of affective disorders. These individuals may benefit from the development of a personalized treatment plan (eg, an additional lifestyle-based intervention or an intervention targeting dysregulation of the stress system).
The study, “Childhood Trauma and Its Impact on Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms in Adulthood: A 6-Year Longitudinal Study,” was authored by Erika Kuzminskaite, Christiaan H. Vinkers, Yuri Milaneschi, Erik J. Giltay and Brenda WJH Penninx.
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