The link between depression and childhood trauma

The link between depression and childhood trauma

You’ve been fighting depression for years, perhaps even decades. You’ve tried medication. You’ve done the therapy thing. You’ve read books, blogs and articles; watched TED Talks; and listened to podcasts. But no matter what you do, nothing ever seems to change.

Sometimes you’re able to find partial relief from that empty feeling inside, but a part of you knows it’s just a matter of time before that wave of despair swallows you up again.

What gives?

Why do so many others seem to be able to overcome their depression while yours has held a decades-long stranglehold on your life with no signs of letting go?    

Despite being treatable, clinical depression doesn’t go away overnight (as much as we wish it would). When you suffer from depression, it takes time to get back to fully feeling like yourself again.

But when feelings of depression hang around for a couple of years or more, it may be time to get curious about what’s really going on. Of course, there’s more than just one answer for why depression can last multiple years in some cases, but one of the more common explanations I encounter as a therapist is that long-term depression in adults is often a symptom of childhood trauma.

And when your depression stems from a traumatic life experience, receiving therapy for depression alone is unlikely to change the way you feel. It could even make things worse.

What’s childhood trauma?

In recent years, we’ve learned just how common childhood trauma is. The landmark ACE Study, first published in 1998, revealed the unsettling fact that nearly two-thirds of children in the U.S. experience at least one adverse childhood experience before the age of 18. These experiences can include (but are by no means limited to):

  • physical, emotional or sexual abuse
  • emotional or physical neglect
  • loss of a parent or caregiver
  • growing up with a parent who is mentally ill or substance-dependent
  • witnessing family members experience domestic abuse or imprisonment

The same study also found that approximately 13 percent of U.S. children experience 4 or more adverse childhood experiences prior to turning 18.

(You can get your personal ACE Score here.)

How does childhood trauma lead to depression in adulthood?

For children who are subjected to emotional abuse and neglect, depression often reflects an innate survival response. At an age when we would otherwise be completely defenseless, our young minds act on our behalf to keep us safe.

Sarah’s story helps to show how depression can be a survival response in children experiencing trauma:

Sarah is a (fictional) woman in her mid-30s who decides to seek therapy for intense feelings of depression that she has been struggling with for years.

In an early therapy session, Sarah shares with her therapist that, for much of her childhood, her mom was highly critical of Sarah’s outward displays of emotion. Whenever Sarah’s emotions came to the surface at home, her mom would respond with anger, issue harsh punishments, and rebuke Sarah for “crying too much” or “being too sensitive.” At times, Sarah’s mom would even vocalize threats that terrified Sarah for most of her childhood. When her therapist asks Sarah about her depression, Sarah shares that she can recall feeling depressed as early as age 3 or 4.

Sarah’s story illustrates the common link between childhood trauma and depression. Rather a stand-alone “disorder,” Sarah’s depression reflects an adaptive response to a traumatic experience in her life, a way in which she was able to keep herself safe as a young child. Had it not been for Sarah’s depression stepping into her life and shutting down, or “depressing,” her emotions, Sarah would almost certainly have had to endure even more emotional abuse than she did throughout her childhood years.

How trauma therapy can help with depression

When feelings of depression stem from a traumatic childhood experience, traditional therapy is unlikely to bring about the lasting change you seek. Treating Sarah’s depression without addressing its link to her childhood trauma, for example, would likely be ineffective and could even make matters worse.

The effects of childhood trauma can be lifelong. Even as an adult, your mind and body continue to perceive danger, and certain events can trigger intense memories and debilitating stress. If, like Sarah, your depression developed in response to an experience of childhood trauma, your body and mind need to know that you’re safe before they’ll be “willing” to shut down the survival tactic of depression. Finding joy and happiness can happen only after you’ve found a state of inner calm.

Have you been struggling with depression for years? Let’s get you back to feeling alive again, once and for all. Contact Modern Era Counseling today to schedule your first session and get the help you deserve!

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