The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Depression

In a recent article, journalist Johann Hari wrote about the doubt some scientists feel about depression being caused by a “chemically imbalanced” brain. For most of his adult life, Hari had believed that his depression was the result of a biological condition. However, after doing his own investigation into the subject, which led to his new book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, Hari concluded that there are “nine major causes of depression and anxiety that are unfolding all around us. Two are biological, and seven are out here in the world, rather than sealed away inside our skulls.”

Hari’s deep dive into the latest research on depression led him to one of its most painful causes, what Hari called the “hardest of those causes for me, personally, to investigate.” That was childhood trauma. Research shows that the experience of childhood trauma can actually alter a person’s brain. It can dramatically increase the risk of adult depression and even leave people at higher risk for suicide.

Many findings have indicated this risk for depression increases based on the number of traumatic events a person experiences, with one study showing that “women who experience at least two adverse events during their formative  years – whether it be abuse, neglect, or some type of family dysfunction– are more than twice as likely to experience depression during perimenopause and menopause.” Other studies show that multiple traumatic experiences, such as emotional or sexual abuse “may lead to a more chronic and severe course of depression.” And as Hari further pointed out, “If you had seven categories of traumatic event as a child, you were 3,100 percent more likely to attempt to commit suicide as an adult, and more than 4,000 percent more likely to be an injecting drug user.”

These days, we are learning more and more about the extensive effects of childhood trauma on our health and wellbeing. Psychiatrist and neuroscientist Bruce Perry recently spoke about the subject to 60 Minutes, stating in his interview, “If you have developmental trauma, the truth is you’re going to be at risk for almost any kind of physical health, mental health, social health problem that you can think of.”

The more we learn about the long-term effects of early childhood trauma, the more important it becomes to talk about the ways we can resolve and heal from it. This may be especially true for people struggling with depression as there’s some indication that individuals who experienced early trauma are less likely to respond to antidepressants.

For example, one study concluded that the greater the exposure to trauma (particularly abuse), “the less likely these depressed patients were to remit following treatment with one of the three commonly prescribed antidepressants.” The study found that sexual, physical and emotional abuse in particular, may have had a specific impact on the lack of response to treatment, perhaps in part because abuse can be recurring. In particular, abuse that occurred before the age of 7 predicted “substantially poorer response and remission outcomes for commonly prescribed antidepressants.” The same study found that, patients who reported early life trauma had a more favorable antidepressant response to psychotherapy as opposed to antidepressant alone. In fact, researchers concluded that “the likelihood of achieving remission in patients with chronic forms of major depression and any early adverse life event was estimated to be twice as high after treatment with psychotherapy when compared to antidepressant therapy.

The point here is not to suggest that antidepressants are ineffective or that people who experienced early trauma are in any way less likely to recover from depression. Rather, it is to highlight the potential value of therapy. As the research team concluded “psychotherapy may be an essential element in the treatment of patients with chronic forms of major depression and a history of childhood trauma.” There are ways to work through and heal from trauma. According to Perry, these changes start with the brain. “In order to heal (i.e., alter or modify trauma), therapeutic interventions must activate those portions of the brain that have been altered by the trauma,” said Perry. “Understanding the persistence of fear-related emotional, behavioral, cognitive and physiological patterns can lead to focused therapeutic experiences that modify those parts of the brain impacted by trauma.”

In some cases, beating depression will involve a journey toward healing from early trauma. Making sense of our experiences and feeling the full pain of them can help us to move on and feel better in our present lives. For this reason, therapy can be a powerful way to help resolve early trauma and overcome depression. Throughout this journey, it’s helpful for people to embrace what Dr. Daniel Siegel calls a COAL attitude in which they are Curious, Open, Accepting, and Loving toward themselves and whatever they’re going through. As Buddha said, “Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.” To learn more about how to find a therapist near you, visit https://locator.apa.org/.

Depression Resources:
National Institute of Mental Health – Depression
Depression.com
WebMD – Depression
Helpguide.org – Depression
Depression-Screening.org
American Psychological Association – Depression
Mayo Clinic – Depression

Suicide Prevention Resources:
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

About the Author

Carolyn Joyce Carolyn Joyce joined PsychAlive in 2009, after receiving her M.A. in journalism from the University of Southern California. Her interest in psychology led her to pursue writing in the field of mental health education and awareness. Carolyn's training in multimedia reporting has helped support and expand PsychAlive's efforts to provide free articles, videos, podcasts, and Webinars to the public. She now works as an editor for PsychAlive and a communications specialist at The Glendon Association, the non-profit mental health research organization that produced PsychAlive.

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One Comment

Joan C. Williams-Dixon

Thank everyone who contributed to this very helpful article. Now 87 y.o., I have suffered childhood trauma, abuse, etc., dx’d bipolar, have pacemaker, diabetes, Thyroid Dis., Stenosis, post-herpetic neuropathy, (was paralyzed due to drug interaction of Lyrica and Lithium, hearing deficit (aides in both ears), vision in one eye (cataract covering other eye) hx of alcoholism, sober 45 years, and depression, major, for several years, in general periodic all of my life, suicidal ideation….etc… .Obviously your presentation of reality and suggestions for COAL will be appreciated. I am immensely grateful to all who participate in studying this ‘demon’…

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