If you’ve experienced trauma and develop symptoms of depression, there are many steps to help you cope.
Surviving trauma is challenging enough — and it can also affect your mental health long after the trauma itself has happened.
Types of trauma vary widely, from public traumatic events, like terrorism, to more personal traumatic experiences, like sexual abuse. No matter the specific experience, all trauma can shake you to your core.
Depression can be both a direct and indirect consequence of trauma. However, not all depression is caused by trauma — other factors that cause depression include genetics, environment, and other medical conditions.
Facing trauma and depression at once can be overwhelming. However, many people live happy and fulfilled lives with trauma treatment and the support of others.
In short, yes. Depression is a common response following a traumatic event.
In fact, a
What’s more, a 2015 study found a clear link between childhood trauma and depressive symptoms later in life. This study found that, out of 349 people with chronic depression,
Depression is more than just feeling down or blue. The symptoms of depression can include:
- lack of energy
- lack of interest and pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
- significant weight loss or gain
- excessive sleeping or insomnia
- excessive guilt
- inability to concentrate
- feelings of worthlessness
- recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
Note that not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will develop depression or PTSD.
Traumatic experiences can have a significant impact your brain and nervous system even if you aren’t diagnosed with depression later.
This emotional response to trauma can have a significant impact on your neurological (brain) and physiological (body) functions. It may affect your brain chemicals and nervous system.
When faced with intense emotional stress or an unsafe situation, the body naturally engages the fight-or-flight system to help you escape from the threat.
However, if you can’t escape the situation, the body engages the freeze response. Here, the nervous system shuts down, or freezes, as a way to protect yourself, like a gazelle “playing dead” when it can’t get away from a predator.
When your body enters this dorsal vagal “freeze” state, you may experience symptoms of depression, such as feeling numb, disconnected, fatigued, and slow. Triggers from previous traumas may lead your body to enter this state long after the trauma itself has ended.
What does the freeze state look like?
When facing extreme stress, our bodies can go into survival mode and react with the following defense mechanisms that have parallels with the symptoms of depression:
- out-of-body experiences or dissociation
- a disconnect from your environment
- feeling numb
- spacing out, or your eyes becoming fixed
- a drop in heart rate and blood pressure
- flat affect, or your facial expressions becoming flat
- slowed breathing
- feeling nauseous, vomiting, defecating, or urinating
- a lump in the throat, or feeling unable to speak
- an inability to think clearly
- feelings of your body collapsing or curling into a ball
Depression and PTSD are different conditions, but they commonly occur together. The National Center for PTSD reports that depression is almost 3 to 5 times more likely in people who have PTSD.
There is some overlap between the depression and PTSD. The two conditions share the following symptoms:
- difficulty concentrating
- loss of pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
On the other hand, PTSD differs from depression with these signs:
- reliving the traumatic event, such as intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks, or being triggered
- avoiding situations that remind you of the traumatic event
- increase in negative thoughts about yourself that weren’t there before the traumatic event
- a tendency of being on high alert, jittery, and continuously looking for danger, known as hypervigilance
Psychotherapy is the recommended treatment for both PTSD and depression. Within therapy, trauma-focused treatments are often even more effective.
Therapies that address trauma may focus on:
- intrusive memories
- related thoughts
- avoidance and escape behaviors
If you decide to seek help for the aftereffects of a trauma, it can help to talk with a therapist who specializes or has experience in treating PTSD. They’ll be able to offer specifically designed therapies to meet the unique needs that people have after experiencing trauma.
Common treatments for PTSD include prolonged exposure (PE) and cognitive processing therapy (CPT).
For example, therapists may use exposure therapy to help you face and manage your fears in a safe environment. Therapists don’t tend to use these techniques for depression or other related disorders.
Psychotherapy for the treatment of depression may focus on:
- pinpointing life challenges that make depression worse and working on ways to improve them
- identifying negative thinking patterns contributing to depression
- improving patterns of interacting with others that contribute to depression
- assisting in finding opportunities to incorporate enjoyable activities
- working with a support system to help with therapy
Often, resolving PTSD can lead to reduction of depressive symptoms without much intervention. Other times, skills learned from PTSD treatments like PE and CPT can be easily applied to depressive symptoms if those symptoms remain after PTSD is successfully treated.
Depression and trauma can be linked. Though depression and PTSD can have overlapping symptoms, they are separate conditions. However, you can have both depression and PTSD at the same time.
Left untreated, depression and post-traumatic stress can worsen over time. But help is available, and with effective treatment, know that you don’t have to live with fear, sadness, and extreme stress.
If you are in a crisis, it is best to contact your nearest emergency room or a national crisis line such as Lifeline Chat or Crisis Text Line. If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide, you can reach help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
If you’re not in a crisis, but you feel ready to talk with someone, you can find tips on finding a mental health professional who specializes in PSTD or depression by checking out our article on finding a therapist.