When Childhood Trauma Leads to Anxiety (2023)

For many adults, childhood trauma and anxiety go hand in hand — and both are treatable.

If you live with anxiety, it’s natural to wonder what might be causing your symptoms. Typically, anxiety disorders stem from a combination of factors, such as:

  • genetics
  • learned coping strategies
  • chronic stress
  • traumatic events

Yet, there’s a common misconception that negative events in childhood affect you less. You might hear people say things like “children are resilient” or “they’re so young, they won’t even remember this.”

But in fact, childhood trauma can have profound and lifelong effects, and as 2020 research shows, there’s a particularly strong link with anxiety in adulthood.

Still, trauma-related anxiety is highly treatable. Getting the right treatment can help you live a healthy, fulfilling life.

Trauma in childhood can take many forms. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines childhood trauma as any traumatic event that “poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity” and can often result in lasting mental and physical effects.

Although traumatic experiences often involve physical danger, many do not. Trauma can arise from any situation where a child feels:

  • overwhelmed
  • isolated
  • unsafe

Examples of childhood trauma include:

(Video) Is Your Anxiety Caused By Childhood Trauma?

  • physical or sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • neglect
  • exposure to domestic violence
  • parental alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder
  • death of a loved one
  • bullying
  • medical trauma
  • car accidents
  • natural disasters

The most well-known mental health condition associated with trauma is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Among children and teens, 3 to 15 percent of girls and 1 to 6 percent of boys develop PTSD following a traumatic event, according to the National Center for PTSD.

A 2018 study found that adults who had a history of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as physical and sexual abuse or neglect, experienced a range of mental health and physical conditions, including:

  • PTSD
  • depression
  • borderline personality disorder (BPD)
  • diabetes

A 2010 study also found links between different types of childhood trauma and the onset of mental health conditions later on, such as:

  • anxiety disorders
  • mood disorders
  • substance use disorders

In a 2018 study, researchers followed 1,336 children who experienced trauma at different points into their adult lives. They found that childhood trauma was associated with higher rates of adult mental health conditions, including any anxiety disorders.

Anxiety can manifest in different ways, such as:

  • generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): chronic, profound worry about seemingly everything.
  • panic disorder: recurrent panic attacks; an intense, overwhelming surge of anxiety with physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms
  • agoraphobia: intense fear, worry, or panic that arises in public or crowded places that are difficult to leave
  • social anxiety disorder: intense fear of being judged, criticized, or rejected in social situations or when performing in front of others

Childhood trauma may even remain into late adulthood. In a 2019 study of 1,872 adults ages 65 to 77 years old, researchers found that experiencing early life stress, such as emotional trauma, was linked to greater anxiety symptoms in late adulthood.

How childhood trauma can lead to anxiety

(Video) How Childhood Trauma Can Lead to Anxiety and Depression In Adults

Childhood trauma can create an environment that is chaotic, unstable, or unpredictable. The impact of this instability can be profound and lifelong.

For example, a child who grows up with an abusive or volatile parent may become hyper-vigilant toward their parent’s moods so they can protect themselves. As an adult, they constantly scan their environment and may overanalyze other people’s reactions, possibly predisposing them to an anxiety disorder.

Research from 2010 found that children who grew up in environments with a lot of conflict and adversity showed higher stress reactivity in early adulthood, which may put them at greater risk for developing mood and anxiety disorders.

Trauma and neurological changes

Certain types of childhood trauma may even change the structure and function of the brain.

A 2014 study found physical differences in the brains of young adults who experienced childhood maltreatment versus those who did not. Differences occurred in regions responsible for:

  • emotional regulation
  • self-awareness
  • the ability to “accurately attribute thoughts or intentions to others”

In a 2017 study of individuals who died by suicide, researchers concluded that experiencing severe childhood abuse may impair the connections between areas of the brain involved in processing emotions and cognitive functioning.

A 2019 study found that young adults who experienced childhood abuse and neglect showed greater activation in the amygdala — the brain’s emotional center — to threat. One year later, this greater activation partly explained the presence of anxiety and depression symptoms.

Young adults with a history of childhood trauma also experienced more stressful life events than their peers, further making them potentially vulnerable to mental health symptoms.

A 2020 literature review of 54 studies and a systematic review of 25 studies found that children who experienced trauma related to violence or abuse showed signs of faster aging at the biological level than children who didn’t undergo trauma.

Even though childhood trauma can have serious, devastating effects, both trauma and anxiety disorders are treatable. If you think your anxiety may be rooted in childhood trauma, you can try treatments that specifically help you address the traumatic events.

It can be important to work with a therapist who specializes in treating trauma and using the approach you’re considering.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

The American Psychological Association (APA) strongly recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as one type of treatment for trauma.

CBT therapists believe that thought patterns and behaviors are learned, and therefore can be unlearned and changed in therapy. In trauma-based CBT, you identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts around the traumatic events with the help of your therapist.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) can help people process their traumatic memories by accessing those memories in a new context.

This 2019 review of seven randomized controlled trials found that EMDR reduced symptoms of traumatic stress.

During an EMDR session, you recall a traumatic memory while your therapist uses directed eye movements, taps, or tones. This prompts the brain to process the memory in a new way, which can help reduce distress and anxiety.

Prolonged exposure (PE) therapy

The more we avoid something, the deeper our anxiety around it grows. This is why APA-recommended PE therapy helps you safely and gradually face a feared memory, place, or situation you’ve been avoiding.

Your therapist supports you as you take small steps to imagine, process, and eventually experience your anxiety-provoking triggers.

(Video) Childhood Trauma and the Brain | UK Trauma Council

Mindfulness-based therapies

Meditation — including mindfulness, body scans, and loving-kindness practices — may help in reducing anxiety.

Evidence is less clear on meditation’s effectiveness in treating trauma, but some research is promising. A 2018 review showed that mindfulness-based therapies reduced PTSD symptoms.

However, the authors concluded that more research is needed to directly compare these treatments to first-line PTSD therapies.

Complementary and alternative treatments

There are a number of alternative treatment options, which may help reduce anxiety- and trauma-related symptoms. For example, you might try:

(Video) 7 Signs of Anxiety Caused by Your Childhood

If you’ve experienced childhood trauma, you’re not alone. More than two-thirds of children report at least one traumatic event by 16 years old, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Many also develop anxiety that stems from their traumatic experiences.

However, both anxiety and trauma are treatable. By working with a therapist, you can find the right approach for your needs, such as processing your trauma and easing your anxiety.

If you’re ready to get help but don’t know where to begin, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health care.


Can childhood trauma cause severe anxiety? ›

There is evidence that experience of childhood trauma may lead to anxiety and long-term pain in adulthood [1,2,3], which may also reach the level of psychopathology [4,5,6].

How do you fix childhood trauma anxiety? ›

How to treat anxiety rooted in trauma
  1. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) ...
  2. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) ...
  3. Prolonged exposure (PE) therapy. ...
  4. Mindfulness-based therapies. ...
  5. Complementary and alternative treatments.
Jan 31, 2022

What are the 5 responses to childhood trauma? ›

Traumatic reactions can include a variety of responses, such as intense and ongoing emotional upset, depressive symptoms or anxiety, behavioral changes, difficulties with self-regulation, problems relating to others or forming attachments, regression or loss of previously acquired skills, attention and academic ...

Why do I have all the trauma responses? ›

It is normal to have strong emotional or physical reactions following a distressing event. On most occasions though, these reactions subside as a part of the body's natural healing and recovery process. There are many things you can do to help cope with and recover from such an experience.

What are signs of extreme childhood trauma? ›

Signs of childhood trauma
  • Reliving the event (flashbacks or nightmares)
  • Avoidance.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Anger.
  • Problems with trust.
  • Self-destructive or risky behaviors.
  • Withdrawal.

What does childhood PTSD look like in adults? ›

Re-experiencing or re-living unwanted memories as flashbacks or nightmares. Hyper-arousal: problems with sleep, irritability, anger, anxiety, hyper-alertness, exaggerated startle response. Hypo-arousal: feeling numb or cut off, feeling detached from others, dissociating, feeling flat or empty. Emotional dysregulation.

Does anxiety from trauma ever go away? ›

So, does PTSD ever go away? No, but with effective evidence-based treatment, symptoms can be managed well and can remain dormant for years, even decades. But because the trauma that evokes the symptoms will never go away, there is a possibility for those symptoms to be “triggered” again in the future.

How do you retrain your brain after childhood trauma? ›

You can help this transition with mindfulness training or breathing exercises. It's the brain's neuroplasticity that makes it possible for this rewiring to occur and for EMDR to change the way traumatic memories are stored so that they no longer activate strong emotions.

Does anxiety from trauma go away? ›

Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Most people who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better.

What are the 3 R's trauma response? ›

The Three R's: Regulate, Relate, and Reason.

What are the four R's of trauma sensitivity? ›

The trauma-informed approach is guided four assumptions, known as the “Four R's”: Realization about trauma and how it can affect people and groups, recognizing the signs of trauma, having a system which can respond to trauma, and resisting re-traumatization.

Is it trauma or am I overreacting? ›

If you often feel as though your life has become unmanageable, this could be a sign that you have some unresolved emotional trauma. Emotional overreactions are a common symptom of trauma. A victim of trauma might redirect their overwhelming emotions towards others, such as family and friends.

What is the fawning response to trauma? ›

Fawning is a trauma response that uses people-pleasing behavior to appease or supplicate an aggressor, avoid conflict, and ensure safety. This trauma response is exceedingly common, especially in complex trauma survivors, and often gets overlooked.

What are the 17 symptoms of complex PTSD? ›

The 17 Symptoms of PTSD
  • Vivid Flashbacks. A PTSD flashback is when you relive your traumatic experience, and it feels like it is happening all over again right in that moment. ...
  • Nightmares. ...
  • Self-Isolation. ...
  • Depression. ...
  • Substance Abuse. ...
  • Emotional Avoidance. ...
  • Feeling on Edge, or Hyperarousal. ...
  • Memory Loss.
Feb 1, 2021

What are unhealthy trauma responses? ›

You may have more emotional troubles such as: Feeling nervous, helpless, fearful, sad. Feeling shocked, numb, or not able to feel love or joy. Being irritable or having angry outbursts.

What does unhealed childhood trauma look like in adults? ›

Childhood trauma in adults also results in feeling disconnected, and being unable to relate to others. Studies have shown that adults that experience childhood trauma were more likely to struggle with controlling emotions, and had heightened anxiety, depression, and anger.

At what age is childhood trauma the most impactful? ›

Young Children and Trauma. Children can experience trauma as early as infancy. In fact, young children between the ages of 0 and 5 are the most vulnerable to the effects of trauma since their brains are still in the early formative years.

How does unresolved childhood trauma manifest in adults? ›

Other manifestations of childhood trauma in adulthood include difficulties with social interaction, multiple health problems, low self-esteem and a lack of direction. Adults with unresolved childhood trauma are more prone to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide and self-harm.

What medication is used for childhood trauma? ›

The current medications of choice are the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), which are beneficial for posttraumatic reexperiencing, hyperarousal, and avoidant symptoms.

What type of therapy is best for childhood trauma? ›

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT)

TF-CBT is effective for children, teens, and adolescents who have significant emotional difficulties from a traumatic event.

What is hypervigilance after emotional abuse? ›

Hypervigilance is often a response to trauma, childhood abuse, assault, or surviving an accident or natural disaster. For those hypervigilant due to abuse, they may be especially vigilant with the needs of others, constantly going out of their way and out of their comfort zone in an attempt to keep them happy.

Is anxiety and overthinking a trauma response? ›

Stressors and past trauma can often trigger patterns of overthinking as well. When these thought cycles start spiraling, it is oftentimes hard to break free from and move past them.

Why can't I get over my childhood trauma? ›

Childhood trauma can alter brain structure and change how certain genes are expressed. A traumatized child may numb themselves as a defense, complicating later attempts to access the emotions needed for healing.

What trauma causes severe anxiety? ›

Childhood trauma is a major predisposing factor in forming anxiety symptoms and disorders in adulthood. Traumas can include physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic violence, parental substance abuse, and abandonment.

What childhood issues cause anxiety? ›

What causes anxiety disorders in children
  • frequently moving house or school.
  • parents fighting or arguing.
  • the death of a close relative or friend.
  • becoming seriously ill or getting injured in an accident.
  • school-related issues like exams or bullying.
  • being abused or neglected.

How does childhood anxiety affect adulthood? ›

Substantial research links untreated childhood anxiety with mental illness in adulthood, including not only ongoing anxiety but also depression and substance abuse. She adds that anxiety is the most common mental health problem in children and adults and the median age of onset is 11.

Can you develop an anxiety disorder from trauma? ›

Individuals who have experienced trauma may experience anxiety in a variety of forms from an increase in generalized worries to panic attacks. Individuals may also experience avoidance of social situations that may be more related to trauma symptoms than a fear of embarrassment.

What state of anxiety is caused by past trauma? ›

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

What is the most severe case of anxiety? ›

Panic disorder: This anxiety disorder is marked by intense and recurrent panic attacks that occur unexpectedly. During a panic attack, people who have this condition experience extreme anxiety that causes feelings of terror and physical symptoms of fear.

Can childhood trauma cause overthinking? ›

Stressors and past trauma can often trigger patterns of overthinking as well. When these thought cycles start spiraling, it is oftentimes hard to break free from and move past them.

What is high functioning anxiety? ›

“The term high functioning anxiety describes an individual who, despite feeling anxious, seems able to effectively manage the demands of day-to-day life,” says psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD.

What is one of the most prevalent childhood anxiety disorders? ›

Separation anxiety is the most common anxiety disorder in children younger than 12.


1. 5 signs of childhood trauma #trauma #mentalhealth #anxiety #depressed
(Micheline Maalouf)
2. Is Anxiety Caused By Childhood Trauma?
(Shaan Kassam)
3. THIS is the REAL Cause of ANXIETY | Joe Rogan & Dr. Gabor Maté
(Mindset Rx)
4. Childhood Trauma: The Lives of the Neglected Children
5. How Childhood Trauma Leads to Addiction - Gabor Maté
(After Skool)
6. 9 Recovery Tools For Childhood Trauma
(Patrick Teahan LICSW)


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