What is it about depression that knocks the wind out of you? The mood disorder, which affects one in 15 U.S. adults, centers on pervasive feelings of deep sadness, together with a significant difficulty to feel joy. Its severity, though, often revolves around its link to suicidality, and more commonly, to a lack of hope.
Experienced together, these and other depressive symptoms are detrimental to one’s quality of life, and sometimes can act as a life-threatening disorder. But as overwhelming as depression can feel, research and field work have managed to link the appearance of this condition to a number of preliminary factors, primarily genetics, personality traits, and childhood environments—particularly in regard to traumatic events. So what types of events should we look out for if depression is to be foreseen, and, ideally, prevented? Read on to find out how trauma, depression, and detrimental, early-life experiences all relate to one another.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognizes three types of destabilizing experiences to be traumatic. They are:
The above experiences are therefore prerequisites for the official, trauma-related diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), whose symptoms include intrusive memories of the event, avoidance of triggering stimuli, hypervigilance and anxiety over experiencing additional trauma, and significant distress.
Not all of those who are exposed to death, serious injury, or sexual violence develop PTSD. Rather, these three forms of destabilizing experiences are universally seen as so potentially horrifying, that the APA has stated they are more likely to cause trauma, compared to cases where no such event has taken place.
It should also be noted that although the APA has only acknowledged the above three types of incidents as traumatic, individuals may develop trauma-related symptoms through exposure to other events. Psychic trauma can be more inclusively defined as any psychological occurrence that rapidly overwhelms the psyche’s ability to provide a sense of safety, intactness, and integration, resulting in feelings of anxiety or helplessness, thus creating a sustained change in the individual’s psychic organization.
The events that take place during one’s childhood have the ability to substantially influence their point of view of the world, their own sense of self, their sense of security, and other key aspects of their life experience. This is also the case when it comes to early-life exposure to trauma.
Mental health research has shown that those who experience trauma during childhood are at a higher risk of developing not only trauma-related disorders, such as PTSD, but also other mental health conditions later on in life. In fact, when wondering if trauma can cause depression, the general consensus among researchers is yes: Specifically, that certain forms of childhood trauma are particularly common among those who are later diagnosed with depression. While only 4% of men and 8% of women who have been exposed to a traumatic event go on to develop PTSD, 76% of those contending with depression had experienced at least one traumatic event as children, and 37% of those with depression had experienced multiple such events.
The following forms of childhood trauma have been linked to the appearance of depression. Among these are:
The following traumas were related to increased depressive symptom severity among those who would later contend with depression:
Several childhood traumatic events have been identified as substantially raising the prevalence of developing chronic or persistent depression, which continues to follow the individual beyond six months. Among these experiences are:
It should also be mentioned that while chronic, dysthymic depression is less severe than major depression, 60% of those who were first diagnosed with dysthymia were found to have developed more major depression after a 10-year period, whereas only 21% of those diagnosed with major depression were found to still suffer from, 10 years later. It has therefore been suggested that in the long term, an early diagnosis of chronic depression should be more concerning than an early diagnosis of major depression.
Experiencing childhood trauma is not a life sentence, and many of those who have gone through such events have managed to continue on to a life that is not marred by their earlier experiences. To do so, they typically have relied on post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic growth describes developing from traumatic hardship, to reach forms of meaning and purpose new to one’s life. While post-traumatic growth is usually discussed in relation to PTSD, it can be applied when looking to overcome trauma, and the depression that has followed it.
Post-traumatic growth is characterized by the following attributes:
The challenge with depression is that the condition often saps the individual of their energy, making it harder to apply the above changes to their life.
For this reason, turning to one’s support system, as well as to professional help, can be a necessary bridge that will assist those battling depression after trauma to find ways to go beyond their pain and acknowledge their past, while looking to the future.