The Link Between Childhood Trauma And Anxiety


Can Childhood Trauma Cause Anxiety?

The short answer to the question : ‘can childhood trauma cause anxiety?’ is yes ; indeed, there is a vast amount of research evidence that shows a link between childhood trauma and the development of various forms of anxiety disorder as an adult.  Anxiety disorders include :

1) Generalized anxiety disorder – persistent and intense worry that lasts for at least six months and can relate to a broad range of concerns

2) Agoraphobia – fear of situations in which it would be difficult or embarrassing to get away/escape – often, the sufferer fears having a panic attack in such a situation

3) Panic disorder –  the sufferer experiences frequent panic attacks and is preoccupied with the fear of such attacks occurring

4) Phobias – these can be split up into two categories : a) specific phobia and b) social phobia :

a) Specific phobia – fear of a particular situation or object which causes significant, irrational anxiety

b) Social phobia – excessive fear of interacting with others 

5) Obsessive-compulsive disorder(OCD) 

6) Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 


The experience of anxiety includes both physical and psychological features, examples of which I provide below :

PHYSICAL – increased heart rate ; rapid and shallow breathing (this actually worsens anxiety – if we find ourselves breathing in this way, slowing down the breathing and breathing more deeply often proves helpful) ; a feeling of an urgent need to protect ourselves.

PSYCHOLOGICAL – a feeling of being threatened (although it may not be possible for us to pinpoint the source of such threat) ; a feeling of impending doom and disaster ; if we are not sure what is causing these feelings, it is hard to find a solution and bring them to an end, meaning the anxiety can  last for an indeterminate length of time if treatment is not sought (cognitive behavioural therapy can be an effective treatment).


The diagram below shows how anxiety can create a vicious circle from which it can be hard to break free :


The following factors make it more likely we will suffer an anxiety disorder :

1) Significant childhood trauma – severe stress in early life can actually damage the way the brain physically develops in such a way that we become much more susceptible to the effects of stress in our adult lives than we otherwise would have been (click here to read my article about how this damage to the physical development of the brain can occur).

2) Experiences in later life – if we have suffered childhood trauma we are often less able to function as an adult (for example, we may have problems with maintaining relationships, or develop addictions, or find ourselves frequently in conflict with others due to difficulties managing anger).

This can lead to further stress which, in turn, increases our chances of developing an anxiety disorder.

Click here to read my article about the negative knock-on effects to our adult lives can result from having experienced childhood trauma.

3) Genes – if we have anxious parents we may inherit genes from them which make us more susceptible to developing anxiety ourselves.

Also, if we had anxious parents as we grew up, our environment is more likely to have been stressful, and, furthermore, we may have ‘learned‘ anxious behaviour due to a psychological process known as ‘modelling.’

4) Our ‘thinking style’ – those of us who are prone to negative thinking, perhaps due to depression, are more likely to suffer from anxiety.

For example, we may be prone to what psychologists refer to as ‘catastrophizing‘(this means we are prone to perceiving events far more negatively than is objectively justifiable and underestimating our ability to cope).

If we had negative parents, we may have ‘learned’ our negative way of thinking from them by the process of modelling referred to above. CLICK HERE to read my article on ways we can overcome our negative thinking style.

5) How our brain is ‘wired up’ – if we have suffered childhood trauma, our brain development may have been adversely affected, leading to it to become ‘wired up’ differently than the brains of individuals whose childhood was relatively stable.

Such disrupted brain wiring can make us much more predisposed to developing an anxiety disorder than average. CLICK HERE to read one of my articles about how childhood trauma can affect brain development.

The more of the above factors that apply to us, the greater is our vulnerability to developing an anxiety disorder.


Herrings et al., (University of Winconsin-Madison) conducted a study which involved sixty-four adolescent participants. It was a longitudinal study that followed the participants over time (prenatally to the age of eighteen).

The aim of the study was to identify what factors significantly elevate mental health problems in childhood and adolescence, and, in order to ascertain this, each of the participants were assessed on the extent to which they had suffered childhood trauma. This was achieved by utilizing the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire (which the participants took when they reached the age of eighteen) which incorporated questions related to the following six types of childhood trauma :

  6. OTHER

Results of the study suggested that the greater the extent to which the participant had experienced childhood trauma, the more likely s/he was to develop symptoms of anxiety.

Further investigation suggested that this may be because their traumatic experiences had adversely affected the connection in their brains between three particular regions :


These three brain areas interact in a way that determines how we perceive and respond to threat and fear.

However, how connections between these brain areas were adversely affected by the experience of childhood trauma differed between boys and girls, as shown below :

  • Impaired communication between the HIPPOCAMPUS AND PREFRONTAL CORTEX was found to exist in both boys and girls who had experienced significant childhood trauma.
  • Impaired communication between the AMYGDALA and PREFRONTAL CORTEX was found in girls only.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE)

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