Why Childhood Trauma Puts You at Higher Risk for PTSD
People can suffer the exact same trauma side-by-side—yet only one will develop PTSD. Researchers are zeroing in why.
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, hits people who undergo a traumatic event. You might be familiar with the risk to military veterans after combat, but people can also suffer PTSD after being in an accident, a natural disaster, or a terror attack, according to the National Institute of Mental Health; witnessing another person’s death can also trigger PTSD. The symptoms of this disorder include daily, disruptive feelings like being easily startled, feeling on edge, having repetitive bothersome memories of the event, emotional outbursts, and experiencing sleep difficulties.
Chances are, you or someone you know has PTSD seeing as 70 percent of adults in the United States have experienced some type of traumatic event at least once in their lives.
This one thing puts you at high risk for PTSD
Although anyone can develop PTSD, one very specific event can put people at extremely high risk: childhood trauma. A long-term study involving the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation and researchers at the University of Vermont’s Center for Children, Youth and Families reveals that “childhood trauma is more common than is often assumed, and that its effects upon the transition to adulthood and adult functioning are not only confined to post-traumatic stress symptoms and depression but are more broadly based.” (The report was published in 2018 in the journal JAMA Network Open.)
Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, an author and psychotherapist located in Tampa, Florida, says that there are several kinds of childhood traumas that could put you at high risk for PTSD. A natural disaster, rape, and sexual abuse, a parent’s life-threatening illness, homelessness and displacement, and peer suicide are a few examples. (Here’s one woman’s story of childhood abuse and the impact it had on her life.)
One potential reason why only some people develop PTSD after childhood trauma may be a hormonal response to stress, suggests a 2019 study published in the journal Archives of Psychiatric Nursing. The stress-related hormone cortisol climbs when you’re under duress; soon after, levels of the feel-good hormone oxytocin rise, helping you calm back down. Researchers at the University of Missouri-Colombia found that some women (the study only included women) with PTSD didn’t get that oxytocin bump to bring them back to normal.
How a child may express PTSD
“PTSD is a reaction to trauma,” Sarkis says. “The brain is trying to process the trauma, working to make sense of what happened.” She explains that this can be challenging for kids who aren’t yet able to verbally express themselves. Young children may instead express their PTSD through repetitive play, flashbacks, or detachment (which may look as though they are “zoning out”). Additionally, children who repeatedly think about what they experienced in an effort to make sense of the trauma often develop worse PTSD, according to a study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in 2019. (Here’s how to heal from a traumatic experience.)
The role caregivers play
“Kids look to parents in terms of how they deal with trauma,” Sarkis explains, noting that a caregiver who doesn’t appropriately manage their own response to certain events—say, consistently displaying anxious behaviors and not seeking therapy—may also learn similar detrimental coping behaviors.
“Parents should seek treatment,” she says, to not only help themselves but their children.
Career challenges later in life
Melanie Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and the author of The Stress-Proof Brain, says that negative childhood experiences usually play out in one of two ways. “A person can end up feeling on alert and overwhelmed all the time,” she says, “or feel consistently numb, desensitized.”
PTSD-related emotions including high levels of fear, lack of trust, avoidance, or having angry outbursts can affect work relationships and in turn, job success.
A host of long-term issues into adulthood
Clearly, a childhood trauma (or series of them) doesn’t end in childhood. The effects can ultimately put people at high risk for PTSD. In the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation study, the researchers reported that there are far-reaching consequences stemming from childhood traumas.
“Our study suggested that childhood trauma casts a long and wide-ranging shadow,” which the researchers say are associated with an increased risk for several psychiatric disorders as adults. Those disorders can negatively interfere with health, social relationships, and financial and academic success.
Greenberg adds that it’s not uncommon for people who faced a childhood trauma to have drug, alcohol, or sex addictions as adults.
“When you have a lot of trauma as a child, you don’t learn the ability to soothe yourself,” she says, noting that without the skills to reduce anxieties related to the trauma, the brain becomes overwhelmed. As such, you may develop unhealthy coping mechanisms.
How to help children develop coping strategies
To help a child cope with trauma, Sarkis says there are options. Play therapy, she explains, allows children to “symbolically act things out through play” when it’s difficult to verbalize what happened.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can also be helpful (you can learn more about CBT here). Effective for children as well as adults, Sarkis notes that CBT allows you to talk through feelings, including irrational fears. It may also be beneficial to explore a combination of therapy and medication, which Sarkis says may work better together than alone, producing a “synergistic effect.” Next, check out how psychedelics may help heal trauma.
- National Institute of Mental Health: "Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder"
- Sidran Institute: "Traumatic Stress Disorder Fact Sheet"
- JAMA Network Open: "Association of Childhood Trauma Exposure With Adult Psychiatric Disorders and Functional Outcomes"
- Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, an author and psychotherapist located in Tampa, Florida
- Archives of Psychiatric Nursing: "Exploring the mutual regulation between oxytocin and cortisol as a marker of resilience"
- The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry: "A core role for cognitive processes in the acute onset and maintenance of post‐traumatic stress in children and adolescents"
- Melanie Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Mill Valley, California, and the author of The Stress-Proof Brain