Trauma may lead to anxiety and other mental disorders
Does truama cause mental illness? If there's something called post-traumatic stress disorder, then it's safe to say that someone exposed to trauma may develop a mental health condition later. Research shows that one's future mental health can be predicted by the trauma they experience today. Even kids who sufeer childhood trauma like abuse and bullying tend to develop anxiety and depression later in life.
But how does it work? How does a traumatic event lead to mental disorder?
How trauma paves the way for mental illness
When an individual experiences a traumatic event, their brain responds. It could be the shocking death of a loved one, an accident, abuse, or some near-death experience.
Before now, studies have always shown that different people (their brains actually) respond differently to trauma. While one person's symptoms and shakiness may dissipate over time, someone else's may continue for years, even when they experienced the same event at the same time.
But the thing is, these different reactions are rather random. They do not fall neatly into any regular pattern, so it becomes difficult for researchers to determine what a person's mental health would be like after experiencing a trauma.
Well, more light has been thrown on the subject. Recent studies show that Exposure to trauma can cause changes in the part of the brain regulating cues like threat, reward, and reaction, paving the way for the onset of anxiety.
It's like knowing if someone would be sick tomorrow or not, thus making it easier to address the situation early before it impacts their life to a great extent.
A look into trauma and development of mental illness
The research is part of the NIMH-funded AURORA study, a large-scale multisite study on over 3,000 people. These people were studied for up to a year after being exposed to a traumatic event.
The research started with Jennifer Stevens, Ph.D., of Emory University of Atlanta investigating the post-trauma activity of 69 AURORA participants who were all exposed to a car crash scene. Stevens and some of her colleagues hypothesized that there must be some biochemical reaction in their brain because, of course, the brain is where all consciousness happens.
So, two weeks after the incident, she went ahead and measured their brain activity with MRI and had them complete some tasks. These tasks assessed their brain activity in response to social threat cues, reward cues, etc. Studies were carried out on these participants for the next six months, and four profiles were drawn based on their brain activities.
The four profiles are:
The same group of researchers also analyzed 77 more AURORA participants exposed to different varieties of traumatic events.
In this other group, the researchers found 3 out of the 4 profiles: Reactive/disinhibited, Low-reward/high-threat, Inhibited. Now, these profiles were not specific to their demographic, health, or trauma-related circumstances.
Stevens and her fellow researchers found that the participants with reactive/disinhibited profiles -- those who showed high activity related to threat and reward -- also showed signs of PTSD and anxiety over the next six months more than the other participants.
The Bottom Line
This research is a major breakthrough in mental health studies. Before now, we only have curative measures for mental health issues like PTSD and anxiety. That's because no one knows who would suffer mental challenges long after a trauma. It's only long after the person’s life has been severely hampered that they draw attention and help can be provided.
But now, experts can analyze people exposed to traumatic events, and those who show the worrisome reactive/disinhibited profile can be offered help long before their lives get into a mess.
However, more research is needed. Using neurobiological, behavioral, and self-report measures, Steven and her colleagues look forward to developing a more comprehensive visualization of these factors that influence trauma survivors' mental health. And they're making their study data available to other researchers to help speed up the development.
This is a ray of light for our future generations. Perhaps, soon, we'll have effective ways to curb these mental health issues long before they have a chance to disrupt lives.