Childhood Trauma Can Bring About Lifetime Changes in Stress Management

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • We know that childhood trauma can cause difficulties throughout a person’s life. In a previous post, I wrote, “The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress indicates that over one half of all children who are sexually abused show at least some signs of post traumatic stress disorder. One third of sexually abused children show signs of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. Approximately one fourth develop disruptive behavior disorders. Many have dysfunctional relationships as adults and/or turn to substance abuse to hide their pain.”


    A new study shows that there is a permanent, physical change in DNA in some children who were abused. According to researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich found that those affected are less able to cope with stressful situations throughout their life.

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    Scientists looked at approximately 2,000 people who had been abused repeatedly and severely, either in childhood or adulthood. One third of the group had developed post-traumatic stress disorder. It would be expected that the risk of developing PTSD would rise with the severity of the abuse; however, researchers found that only those with a specific gene variant had a rising risk level.  


    For those with the gene variant, long-term changes to the stress hormones were found leading to a lifetime of problems in dealing with stress and putting them at a higher risk of developing depression, anxiety and PTSD. This change within DNA was associated with childhood trauma only, those in the study who were abused and traumatized as adults did not have the same, long-lasting changes to stress hormones, although they could still develop depression, anxiety or PTSD.


    Previous studies have come to the same conclusion. A study completed at Butler Hospital and published on PLoS One in January 2012, showed that children who experienced adversity, including abuse or loss of a parent, had epigenetic changes, specifically to areas that helped to regulate stress. Researchers involved in this study believe that stressful experiences during childhood can actually change the way stress hormones work later in life.


    These types of studies can help medical researchers discover which children may be at risk for later developing other psychiatric problems and possibly physical illnesses, such as cardiovascular problems. Previous studies have shown, in animals, that these changes can be reversed. Further study would be needed to fully understand.  Audrey Tykra, M.D. Ph.D., director of the Laboratory for Clinical Translational Neuroscience at Butler Hospital and researcher at Butler Hospital states, “This line of research may allow us to better understand who is most at risk and why, and may allow for the development of treatments that could reverse the epigenetic effects of childhood adversity.” [1]




    [1] “Childhood Adversity Causes Changes in Genetics,” 2012, Feb 27, Staff Writer,


    “Childhood Trauma Leaves Mark on DNA of Some Victims: Gene-Environment Interaction Causes Lifelong Dysregulation of Stress Hormones,” 2012, Dec 2, Staff Writer,

Published On: January 23, 2013