The Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Numerous studies have been done on the implications of childhood trauma on mental health. Although the general consensus is that trauma does affect an individual in many ways, very little research has been done to narrow the investigation into the possible links between childhood trauma and Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
One 2013 study, Childhood Maltreatment is Associated with Larger Left Thalamic Gray Matter investigated the relationship between GAD and childhood maltreatment by examining the brain scans of individuals with a history of GAD and trauma. As a person with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from childhood experiences, I was intrigued about this study.
The limbic system, which is made up of the amygdala, hippocampus, mammillary body hypothalamus, olfactory cortex, thalamus, cingulate gyrus and fornix, can create dysfunction within these systems by way or continual arousal, disruption, and interference from stress related events like trauma. Overreaction and dysfunction within the limbic system can perpetuate the misguided and perceived threats causing individuals to be constantly on guard or worried that something is going to happen. This hyper-sensitivity at an unconscious level can directly result in keeping the limbic system in disarray long after the threat has been removed. High levels of cortisol that are ignited by the experiences of trauma can trigger anxiety and depression, as well as a deficiency in the GABA neurotransmitters. (Hosier, Childhood Trauma Recovery, 2016) For those of you that have GAD, you are probably sitting there thinking, no kidding!
The process of how childhood trauma manifests and transforms into GAD is complex. We understand how childhood trauma causes the limbic system reactions, biological changes and chemical reactions. However, the question now becomes why does this manifest into GAD?
The study done by Liao, et. al., indicated that abnormalities in cortical/subcortical interactions are the place where GAD manifests. The amygdala and thalamus play an important role in the transmitting, interpretation and coding of fear, emotions and filtering of emotional regulation. The neurobiological consequences of trauma, based on MRI exams in this study, revealed predominant left thalamus involvement of increased gray matter of pathological nature. This pathological involvement and increase of gray matter in the brain is thought to be directly connected to GAD. Long-term dysregulation factually changes the way a brain operates and even develops as a child who is living with trauma. Although I have had MRI brain scans, I learned through this research that baseline MRI scans do not include specific investigations into these pathological pathways as done in this study.
The imprints of trauma on the brain can be difficult for survivors of who are trying to move past their GAD symptoms. Healing from trauma is possible, and the symptoms of GAD can be lessened in some circumstances. “The amygdala can learn to relax; the hippocampus can resume proper memory consolidation; the nervous system can recommence its easy flow between reactive and restorative modes. The key to achieving a state of neutrality and then healing lies in helping to reprogram the body and mind” (Rosenthal, 2019).
The success of treatment for trauma induced GAD varies. There will never be a one size fits all approach to healing. As the years have gone on, I have tried everything from medication, to therapy, to exercise, to meditation, to art therapy and everything in between. Some things work for a while to alleviate the symptoms of my GAD and I have many days, months, and even years that have given me reprieve from raging anxiety, but the low level every day generalized anxiety has never truly left me forever. I think I have come to terms with that.
The discoveries like the one in Liao, et. al., research is important in understanding the causal effects of GAD in individuals. As more information is available, I hope there will be a better understanding in how to heal the biological, chemical and physical changes in the brain as a result of GAD thought to be caused by childhood trauma, so that one day people like myself can say I used to have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, but I am cured.
Liao, M, Yang, F, Zhang, Y, He, Z, Song, M, Jiang, T, Li, Z, Lu, S, Wu, W, Su, L, & Li, L.(2015). Childhood Maltreatment Is Associated with Larger Left Thalamic Gray Matter Volume in Adolescents with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Holistic Perspectives on Trauma, 169–189. doi: 10.1201
Hosier, D. (2016). Effects of Childhood Trauma on the Limbic System. Retrieved from https://childhoodtraumarecovery.com/brain/effect-of-childhood-trauma-on-the-limbic-system/
Rosenthal, M. (2019). The Science Behind PTSD Symptoms: How Trauma Changes The Brain. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-science-behind-ptsd-symptoms-how-trauma-changes-the-brain/
Morton, S. (2020). The Connection Between Childhood Trauma and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 28, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-connection-between-childhood-trauma-and-generalized-anxiety-disorder/