Research suggests that trauma can be a contributing factor to developing schizophrenia. Here’s how.
Schizophrenia is a rare mental health condition that features symptoms of psychosis, such as delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech. The person living with it might see, hear, or believe things that aren’t experienced by others or based on reality.
Causes of schizophrenia can be genetic, biological, developmental, or environmental. And according to recent research, one of the contributing environmental factors is trauma, especially childhood trauma.
“Schizophrenia, like most things in psychiatry, adheres to a stress-diathesis model,” explains Dr. Alex Dimitriu, founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California. “What this means is that some people have a predisposition for psychosis, which can be triggered by a life stressor.
“At minimum, schizophrenia is related to an excessive amount of dopamine in certain parts of the brain,” he adds. “And anything that gets dopamine levels up — too much coffee, lack of sleep, stress, and especially a trauma — can push people to become symptomatic, especially those who have a genetic predisposition.”
According to Jocelyn Patterson, a mental health counselor and art therapist in Florida, trauma is related to a response to an event rather than the event itself. A trauma response is mostly a fear-based reaction that the event (and related discomfort and distress) will happen again, she says.
Because of this, trauma can cause a person to get a bit jumpy. “When you’re living in a state of anxiety, you might become hypervigilant to stimuli around you. It’s not far-fetched to consider that others might interpret this hypervigilance as auditory or visual hallucinations that could be linked to a schizophrenia diagnosis,” Patterson says.
Research suggests that, yes, childhood trauma can play an important role in whether someone might develop schizophrenia.
“Repeated episodes of childhood emotional and physical abuse are particularly harmful because they interrupt the healthy development of the brain related to working memory, executive function, verbal learning, and attention,” says Valentina Dragomir, a Europe-based psychotherapist and founder of PsihoSensus.
“These functions are impaired in people who are at high risk to develop psychosis,” she adds, noting that people with parents diagnosed with schizophrenia have a higher genetic risk of having it, too. “[This] combined with an adverse environment and severe traumatic experiences could lead to developing psychosis or schizophrenia later in life.”
But it’s not entirely possible to develop trauma-induced schizophrenia at any age. Symptoms of schizophrenia usually don’t present until someone’s late teens to early 30s, so a diagnosis would typically be explored and received around that time.
Schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are related in specific ways.
Patterson says people living with PTSD can experience:
- intrusive thoughts or memories
- dissociative reactions
- emotional or physical distress when thinking about the event
- impaired daily functioning
When a person with PTSD relives past traumatic events, they may be reacting to auditory or visual stimuli or speaking in a way that doesn’t pertain to their current reality, Patteson says. This can seem like they’re experiencing symptoms of a psychotic disorder.
“While PTSD and trauma responses can appear similar externally, there’s an internal component contributing to a person who’s schizophrenic,” Patterson adds. “For this reason, schizophrenia tends to run in families [and be] linked to psychotic breaks/triggering events, whereas PTSD or a trauma response is linked only to the triggering event.”
Dimitriu says high dopamine levels are responsible for PTSD and schizophrenia symptoms. “Stress equals dopamine, and too much dopamine can equal psychosis in those predisposed.”
But Dragomir notes that “while severe trauma correlates with the development of severe mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia, not everyone at risk [will develop it].”
Can trauma cause schizophrenia? Research and experts suggest trauma, especially severe childhood trauma, can increase the likelihood of someone developing schizophrenia or expressing similar symptoms later in life.
Although trauma cancause schizophrenia, traumatic life experiences usually don’t lead to trauma-induced psychosis. However, the chance is higher if you’re genetically predisposed to the condition.
If you’re concerned about your mental health or the well-being of a loved one, consider speaking with a therapist to learn more about schizophrenia and trauma.