For many adults, childhood trauma and anxiety go hand in hand — and both are treatable.
If you live with anxiety, it’s natural to wonder what might be causing your symptoms. Typically, anxiety disorders stem from a combination of factors, such as:
- learned coping strategies
- chronic stress
- traumatic events
Yet, there’s a common misconception that negative events in childhood affect you less. You might hear people say things like “children are resilient” or “they’re so young, they won’t even remember this.”
But in fact, childhood trauma can have profound and lifelong effects, and as
Still, trauma-related anxiety is highly treatable. Getting the right treatment can help you live a healthy, fulfilling life.
Trauma in childhood can take many forms. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines childhood trauma as any traumatic event that “poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity” and can often result in lasting mental and physical effects.
Although traumatic experiences often involve physical danger, many do not. Trauma can arise from any situation where a child feels:
Examples of childhood trauma include:
- physical or sexual abuse
- emotional abuse
- exposure to domestic violence
- parental alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder
- death of a loved one
- medical trauma
- car accidents
- natural disasters
The most well-known mental health condition associated with trauma is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Among children and teens, 3 to 15 percent of girls and 1 to 6 percent of boys develop PTSD following a traumatic event, according to the National Center for PTSD.
- borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- anxiety disorders
- mood disorders
- substance use disorders
Anxiety can manifest in different ways, such as:
- generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): chronic, profound worry about seemingly everything.
- panic disorder: recurrent panic attacks; an intense, overwhelming surge of anxiety with physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms
- agoraphobia: intense fear, worry, or panic that arises in public or crowded places that are difficult to leave
- social anxiety disorder: intense fear of being judged, criticized, or rejected in social situations or when performing in front of others
Childhood trauma may even remain into late adulthood. In a
Childhood trauma can create an environment that is chaotic, unstable, or unpredictable. The impact of this instability can be profound and lifelong.
For example, a child who grows up with an abusive or volatile parent may become hyper-vigilant toward their parent’s moods so they can protect themselves. As an adult, they constantly scan their environment and may overanalyze other people’s reactions, possibly predisposing them to an anxiety disorder.
Trauma and neurological changes
Certain types of childhood trauma may even change the structure and function of the brain.
- emotional regulation
- the ability to “accurately attribute thoughts or intentions to others”
In a 2017 study of individuals who died by suicide, researchers concluded that experiencing severe childhood abuse may impair the connections between areas of the brain involved in processing emotions and cognitive functioning.
Young adults with a history of childhood trauma also experienced more stressful life events than their peers, further making them potentially vulnerable to mental health symptoms.
Even though childhood trauma can have serious, devastating effects, both trauma and anxiety disorders are treatable. If you think your anxiety may be rooted in childhood trauma, you can try treatments that specifically help you address the traumatic events.
It can be important to work with a therapist who specializes in treating trauma and using the approach you’re considering.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
The American Psychological Association (APA) strongly recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as one type of treatment for trauma.
CBT therapists believe that thought patterns and behaviors are learned, and therefore can be unlearned and changed in therapy. In trauma-based CBT, you identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts around the traumatic events with the help of your therapist.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) can help people process their traumatic memories by accessing those memories in a new context.
This 2019 review of seven randomized controlled trials found that EMDR reduced symptoms of traumatic stress.
During an EMDR session, you recall a traumatic memory while your therapist uses directed eye movements, taps, or tones. This prompts the brain to process the memory in a new way, which can help reduce distress and anxiety.
Prolonged exposure (PE) therapy
The more we avoid something, the deeper our anxiety around it grows. This is why APA-recommended PE therapy helps you safely and gradually face a feared memory, place, or situation you’ve been avoiding.
Your therapist supports you as you take small steps to imagine, process, and eventually experience your anxiety-provoking triggers.
Meditation — including mindfulness, body scans, and loving-kindness practices — may help in reducing anxiety.
Evidence is less clear on meditation’s effectiveness in treating trauma, but some research is promising. A
However, the authors concluded that more research is needed to directly compare these treatments to first-line PTSD therapies.
Complementary and alternative treatments
There are a number of alternative treatment options, which may help reduce anxiety- and trauma-related symptoms. For example, you might try:
If you’ve experienced childhood trauma, you’re not alone. More than two-thirds of children report at least one traumatic event by 16 years old, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Many also develop anxiety that stems from their traumatic experiences.
However, both anxiety and trauma are treatable. By working with a therapist, you can find the right approach for your needs, such as processing your trauma and easing your anxiety.
If you’re ready to get help but don’t know where to begin, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health care.