The Impact of Childhood Trauma on Adult Mental Health

Do traumatic experiences in childhood affect your mental health as an adult? According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 57 million U.S. adults have a mental illness.(1) Among these individuals, many have experienced previous childhood trauma. 

A study published in JAMA Network Open, a Journal of the American Medical Association, found that cumulative trauma up to the age of 16 was associated with higher rates of adult psychiatric disorders as well as poorer functional outcomes (e.g., holding a job, social isolation, etc.).(2)  Similarly, studies indicate that as many as 81% of patients with severe mental illness (SMI) reported sexual and childhood abuse.(3) 

While childhood trauma can impact adult mental health, improved mental health outcomes are possible. At Immersion Recovery Center, we offer trauma therapy and co-occurring disorder treatment options in Delray Beach, FL. At our facility, trained professionals help adults work through unresolved childhood trauma and build the skills and knowledge necessary to improve their well-being. To learn more about trauma-informed therapy and our other treatment options, contact Immersion Recovery Center today.

Types of Childhood Trauma

The term “childhood trauma” is used to describe a host of negative experiences. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), these traumatic events can range from neglect, terrorism, and natural disasters to life-threatening illnesses, war experiences, and parental military deployment.(4)  

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) describe the type and category of traumatic events experienced between 0 and 17 years of age. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  lists a host of ACE examples, a few of which include:(5)

  • Witnessing violence in the community or home
  • Having a family member attempt or commit suicide
  • Experiencing abuse, neglect, and/or violence
  • Growing up in a household with substance use or mental health disorders
  • Experiencing instability due to parental separation 
  • Having a household member incarcerated

ACE examinations have become standardized throughout medical and mental health facilities. These assessment tools are designed to grasp the scope and nature of the trauma someone experiences as a child. A higher score on an ACE assessment means that a person has experienced an increased amount of childhood trauma. Higher exposure greatly raises the potential risk factors for negative impacts later in life. These negative impacts may include an increased risk for:(5)

  • Injury
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Involvement in sex trafficking
  • Maternal and child health problems (e.g., teen pregnancy, pregnancy complications, fetal death)
  • Chronic diseases (e.g., cancer, diabetes, heart disease)
  • Suicide

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Long-Term Effects of Childhood Trauma

The effects of childhood trauma reach far beyond childhood. As a child’s mind develops, their ability to cope with traumatic events grows as well. Because of their limited cognitive ability, children exposed to trauma are often unable to process the intense or unpleasant physical, emotional, and mental stimulation. This inability to process the sights, sounds, thoughts, and emotions of a traumatic event can manifest later in life with unhealthy habits, behaviors, or mental health conditions. 

Increased Risk of Mental Health Disorders

Many mental health disorders are rooted in childhood. Though exposure to a traumatic event will not automatically result in a mental health disorder, without proper protective factors, children exposed to trauma have a heightened risk for development. The overall impact on future mental health is also dependent on various factors such as the severity of a traumatic event, the child’s proximity to the event, and the reaction of caregivers.

Impact on Brain Development & Functioning

Though a brain continues to develop throughout life, a child’s brain is the most vulnerable. The CDC asserts that the first 8 years of a child’s life are the most crucial for establishing the foundation for long term health and well-being.(6) Throughout these formative years, a child has not grasped the skills needed to cope with exposure to trauma. Because of this, they lack the ability to process intense emotions as well as the physical and mental  sensations associated with a traumatic event. 

When a child’s brain is exposed to trauma, a series of protective behaviors can develop, including:

  • Dissociation
  • Compartmentalization
  • Lapses in memory
  • Heightened sense of awareness or fear (often without a rational cause)
  • Involuntary activities or behaviors

Though these protective factors can often help a child as they are experiencing a traumatic event, they frequently materialize as a mental health disorder later in life if not adequately addressed.

Relationship Patterns & Attachment Issues

A protective mechanism that can develop during childhood is the ability to distance oneself from others emotionally. This lack of attachment manifests in a lack of trust or emotional vulnerability in relationships. Though this behavior is intended to be protective during events of abuse by a caregiver or loved one, it may cause problems later in life. If left unaddressed, a person can continue to lack the ability to develop close connections with others even though there is no longer a threat of harm or abuse.

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Coping Mechanisms & Maladaptive Behaviors

Coping mechanisms are the mental and physical strategies employed to manage trauma. Often developed subconsciously, these mechanisms serve as protective barriers against overwhelming negative stimuli during traumatic events. However, what may begin as temporary solutions can evolve into maladaptive behaviors, leading to complications later in life.

Substance Use & Addiction

According to insights from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), traumatic experiences are associated with both substance misuse as well as substance use disorders (SUDs). NIDA further notes that childhood trauma is linked with substance use disorders later in life, and many of those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also have a substance use disorder.(6) When SUDs and mental health disorders occur concurrently, the conditions are referred to as co-occurring disorders (aka dual diagnoses).

Often, drugs or alcohol are used as a way to numb or dissociate from the unprocessed physical, mental, and emotional stress associated with past childhood trauma. Through treatment including counseling, medication, or a combination of both, you can develop healthier ways of coping with these uncomfortable emotions.

Self-Harm & Suicidal Behavior

Another unhealthy behavior associated with childhood trauma is self-harm. During a traumatic event, a child may feel as though their safety, security, and mental well-being are out of their control. Frequently associated with a desire for control in an uncontrollable situation, self-harm is an unhealthy way for someone experiencing trauma to maintain a sense of autonomy. Though the pain and resulting effects of self harm are unpleasant, they are within a person’s control, and they can provide the individual with a false sense of security. These self-harming behaviors may also be overcome with proper counseling and care from a qualified mental health professional.

Relationship & Intimacy Challenges

Unaddressed childhood trauma may also lead to future relationship and intimacy challenges. If abuse is perpetrated by a loved one, many children may unintentionally develop a resistance to trust and bonding as a means of protection from future abuse. Though this protective factor can be temporarily helpful, later in life it can lead to the inability to form intimate relationships. Through the help of counseling with a trained mental health professional, many can recognize this pattern of behavior and overcome its associated challenges.

Healing from Childhood Trauma

Just as the body can heal from an injury, the brain can heal from the negative impact of early traumatic experiences. With the help of qualified professionals, the brain can rewire itself toward healthier habits, behaviors, and coping methods. Though this process takes time, the results can increase well-being in every aspect of life.

Trauma-Informed Therapy and Treatment Approaches

Most mental health professionals are required to undergo trauma-informed care education and training as a step in the licensure process. This approach to counseling takes into consideration the fact that many unhealthy habits and behaviors are rooted in trauma response. Trauma-informed therapists better understand this connection and are able to provide counseling modalities with the most significant impact.

Building Resilience & Developing Coping Skills

A key component in overcoming maladaptive behaviors stemming from trauma is the development of healthy coping skills. A mental health therapist helps clients develop the tools and skills to cope with past traumatic experiences as well as their current emotional manifestations. This resilience allows the client to continue life with improved mental health and overall well-being. 

Creating Supportive Relationships & Social Networks

An important factor in building resilience is the presence of a supportive social network. Part of mental health treatment and overcoming childhood trauma is the development of close, safe, and healthy relationships. These relationships play a large role in both overcoming past trauma as well as protecting from future traumatic impact.

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Seeking Help

If you or someone you love has experienced childhood trauma, you are not alone—and Immersion Recovery Center can help. Specializing in the treatment of substance use and co-occurring mental disorders, Immersion Recovery Center is a nationally recognized leader in evidence-based practices. Our trauma-informed clinicians specialize in helping clients recognize and overcome disruptive issues stemming from childhood trauma. Reach out today to learn more about trauma-informed care and to take the first steps toward lifelong recovery and improved mental health.

  1. National Institute of Mental Health. Mental Illness. Available from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.
  2. Copeland WE, Shanahan L, Hinesley J, Chan RF, Aberg KA, Fairbank JA, van den Oord EJCG, Costello EJ. Association of Childhood Trauma Exposure With Adult Psychiatric Disorders and Functional Outcomes. JAMA Netw Open. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6324370.
  3. Floen SK, Elklit A. Psychiatric diagnoses, trauma, and suicidiality. Ann Gen Psychiatry.. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC185869.
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Recognizing and Treating Child Traumatic Stress. Available from: https://www.samhsa.gov/child-trauma/recognizing-and-treating-child-traumatic-stress.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Adverse Childhood Experiences. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/aces/about/index.html.
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Trauma and Stress. Available from: https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/trauma-and-stress.

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Susan-Shirley

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Serving as the Inpatient Clinical Director at Immersion Recovery Center, Susan will work directly with staff members, clients, and family members to ensure the clinical program remains as effective and individualized as possible. Susan is no stranger to the fields of behavioral health and addiction. She has over 25 years of experience, working in an inpatient setting, an outpatient setting, acute stabilization and nearly all other settings in the realm of addiction recovery.