Is there a connection between childhood trauma and depression


Often people who struggle with depression, anxiety, suicide, and self-destructive behaviours as adults have a history of childhood trauma. The self-destructive behaviours they present with may include self-harm (cutting), overeating, anorexia, alcohol & drug abuse and suicide attempts.

It is not always easy to connect childhood abuse and your current mental and physical health status. One of the ways your mind protects you against trauma is to let you dissociate from the trauma, your environment and yourself as a survival mechanism. It is possible to stay disconnected during childhood, adolescence into adulthood.  Often people only face what happened to them when there is no alternative anymore.  Dr Grant Hilary Brenner states in Psychology today that people who survived trauma often describe it as follows:

  • “I never really had a childhood.”
  • “I can’t remember much from growing up.”
  • “I’ve always felt like something was missing, but I don’t know what it is.”
  • “I’m the kind of person that always dates people who are bad for me.”
  • “I’m better off alone.”
  • “I don’t like to think about myself; it only makes me feel bad.”
  • “I’m not the kind of person who has strong feelings about things.”

The connection between Obesity & Trauma

Vincent Felitti, head of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, conducted interviews with the patients who dropped out of a weight loss program, even after losing the access weight successfully. The question he asked was WHY the participants gain backed all the weight, not HOW. He got three categories of answers from them:

  • Firstly patients who had been sexually abused or raped said being fat helps to be overlooked – people are not interested in relationships with super obese people.
  • Secondly, some patients said being obese is physically protective, especially in their working environment, for example, prison warders. The bigger they were, the safer they felt.
  • Thirdly they said it lowered people’s expectations of them. People, on average, see obese people as fat and lazy. If you have been hurt as a child, you want to retreat from this world because childhood abuse changes the way you experience and permanently see the world. To withdraw means you become invisible to the world.

The interview findings suggested to Felitti that weight gain might be a coping mechanism for depression, anxiety, and fear. He compared what he found to a house on fire. All we see is the smoke; you have to go inside the house to see the fire and catch fire. He said he realised ‘’Obesity isn’t the problem, it is the smoke.’’

Deep inside the person there is wounding that needs to be addressed.

A study about childhood trauma

A study was then conducted in San Diego, California, between 1995 and 1997 by Vincent Felitti on 17,337 participants on adverse childhood experiences. They had to complete a 10 question screening questionnaire.  He found that most of the participants experienced childhood trauma, for example, childhood sexual abuse.

The study showed the following:

For every category of traumatic incident you had as a child, you were radically more likely to become depressed as an adult. For example:

  • 4 x adverse childhood traumatic events were associated with a 700% increase in alcoholism
  • +6 x childhood traumatic events  was associated with a 3000% increase in attempted suicide
  • The greater the trauma, the greater your risk of depression, anxiety or suicide.
  • Studies also showed that emotional abuse was more likely to cause depression than any other kind of trauma – it even beat sexual molestation.

Question: Why do people who have been hurt as children so often ‘’turn on themselves’’ when they are older?

Johann Hari describes it as follows in his book – Lost Connections: ‘’ Children almost always think it is their fault when they experience something traumatic.  For example, they are to blame for their parent’s divorce, or for being sexually molested by a grandfather.’’  He explains that children feel powerless against that what is happening to them. They cannot change their environment and they cannot leave. They are stuck in that situation. They have basically two options to deal with it:

  • To cope with what is happening, they can admit they are powerless and can be hurt again at any moment.
  • Or they can decide it is their fault. If something is your fault, it means there is something you can do to make it different. Johann Hari states with this option they ”gain some power back in their minds. They tell themselves it is their fault. It protects you in a way against the realisation of the vulnerable you actually were and still are. If it is your fault, it is under your control.”

Johann Hari says this comes at a cost – if you think you were responsible for what happened to you, at some point, you are going to think you deserved it.  It can follow you into adulthood – always thinking you are not worth much.

Get help

How can you connect past trauma with current health and mental issues? In his book Lost Connections, Johann Hari writes how difficult it was for him to talk about his past, the trauma he experienced as a child, with his therapist. He found it hard to face what happened and at first found himself defending the adults who were the causes of his traumatic events.

He wrote: ‘’I attacked the memory of my childhood self. It was only slowly – over time – that I came to see what he (the therapist) was saying. And I felt a real release of shame.’’

Identify your childhood trauma

To help you remember if you had experienced childhood trauma, go through the next checklist and mark if the question is true or false for you.

Tell your story

Do you want to learn how to write about traumatic events?
Need to heal from trauma through the writing process?
Would you like to help others by writing about traumatic events?

Please make use of the guidance on the following website to write about what happened to you.

Get help


You can chat with an online counsellor on our helpline: LIVE CHAT.

It is a text based chat, and you may remain anonymous.

Suggested reading:

Lost Connections. Johann Hari, 2018

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Gabor Mate. 2018


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