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Childhood Trauma : Its Link to Later Psychosis.

‘The psychiatric profession is about to experience an earthquake that will shake its intellectual foundations…there is tectonic, plate-shifting evidence'[for the environmental basis of psychosis]’

-Oliver James (leading UK psychologist). Comment in relation to the now overwhelming evidence that psychosis is strongly related to childhood trauma and the need to stop over-focusing on biological causes.

There is now extremely strong research evidence showing the link between childhood trauma and the affected individual’s likelihood of developing PSYCHOTIC ILLNESS in later life.

It is, of course, already well-established that there is a powerful link between childhood trauma and psychiatric conditions which include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, post traumatic stress disorder, sexual dysfunction, personality disorder, dissociation and suicidal ideation. Now, however, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is also a strong link with psychotic conditions such as BIPOLAR DEPRESSION and SCHIZOPHRENIA.

A plethora of evidence is now demonstrating the very high prevalence of experiences of severe childhood trauma in psychiatric patients who are suffering from psychotic illnesses

Indeed, many leading psychologists are arguing that researchers have neglected the importance of childhood experiences in relation to psychotic illness in the past. Here, then, I present some recent research which helps to redress the balance:

– Read et al reviewed 51 previous studies on causes of psychotic illness and found that 69% of female psychotic patients and 59% of male psychotic patients had suffered severe childhood trauma. It was also pointed out by the researchers that these figures, although already extremely high, may be UNDERESTIMATES due to the fact that experiences of child abuse are well known to be under-reported.

– Bebbington et al : these researchers, examining data generated from 8500 individuals, found that those suffering from psychosis were approx. 15 times more likely than the mentally well to have suffered severe childhood trauma.

– A Dutch study of 4000 patients found that those who had suffered severe childhood trauma were approx. 11 times more likely to have developed psychotic conditions in later life.

– A Californian study found that those who had suffered severe childhood trauma were 5 times more likely to have gone on to experience HALLUCINATIONS in later life.

HOW IS CHILDHOOD TRAUMA THOUGHT TO LEAD TO PSYCHOTIC CONDITIONS?

– COGNITIVE THEORY: Due to adverse childhood experiences, the individual develops what is called a NEGATIVE COGNITIVE TRIAD of beliefs; these are:

– a negative view of self
– a negative view of others
– a negative view of the world in general

More specifically, beliefs such as the following are likely to develop:
– I am vulnerable
– others cannot be trusted
– the world is dangerous

Such beliefs can become so ingrained and severe that they eventually manifest themselves in the guise of psychotic symptoms eg PARANOIA.

– AFFECT OF CHILDHOOD TRAUMA ON THE BRAIN: Research is showing that extreme stress in childhood can adversely affect the physical development of vital brain regions responsible for emotional control (eg the AMYGDALA) which can lead to extreme emotional dysregulation (INABILITY TO CONTROL STRONG EMOTIONS) and concomitant over-sensitivity and emotional over-reactivity. If the problem becomes sufficiently intense psychotic conditions may result.

IMPLICATIONS:

It is thought a new, over-arching theory of the causes of psychosis (known in scientific circles as a PARADIGM SHIFT) is likely take root in the field of psychiatric research – namely one that emphasizes the enormous importance of adverse childhood experiences.

It is argued that patients who present with psychotic symptoms should ROUTINELY undergo DETAILED ASSESSMENTS relating to their childhood experiences and that there should be a much greater emphasis upon the importance of psychological therapy (as opposed to drug therapy- so popular up until now- based upon theories of the biological origins of psychotic conditions).

If you would like to view an infographic showing the relationship between different types of childhood trauma and the relative risks of later going on to develop psychosis, please click here.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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