While the effects of anxiety can be detrimental to anyone’s sense of safety and livelihood, the root causes of anxiety are often far more upsetting. Children who experience trauma—for example, any of the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)—are at a greater risk for developing an anxiety disorder later on in life. The most common form of anxiety which develops out of a traumatic experience is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Anything that’s perceived as traumatic during childhood can lead to anxiety or PTSD later on in life, even into adulthood.
What Is an ACE?
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic experiences that include abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual), physical or emotional neglect from a parent or guardian, abandonment, and dysfunction in the home. Trauma can also occur from being involved in a car accident or witnessing something tragic, such as the death of an animal or another person. Trauma can result from any experience that leaves a child feeling as if his or her safety and wellbeing are in danger, such as witnessing a parent being abused, using drugs, being incarcerated, or struggling with mental health. Sometimes trauma can even result from experiences that are not considered abuse but caused a traumatic reaction regardless, such as being hit with a belt or a paddle as discipline, living in poverty, or witnessing the divorce of two parents.
Trauma can also occur when we’re infants, and according to some research, even while we’re in the womb.2 This is why treating the symptoms of teen anxiety is a priority in supporting a child or teen’s healthy development, especially if it’s difficult to determine the root cause of the distress.
Untreated, the ACEs can often lead to toxic stress, which is the result of the body’s stress responses consistently being activated. Toxic stress can wear us down, subtract years from our lives, and can quite literally be toxic to our bodies.
How Does Trauma Manifest?
Trauma can manifest in a number of ways as we age, and the way it manifests depends largely on how each unique individual processes it. For some, it’s internalized. A child might begin to disconnect from the emotional aspects of the experience, store stress in the body, and try to overcompensate for any personal shortcomings. Internalizing trauma and storing stress in the body can cause a person to become ill, gain weight, and become more susceptible to physical diseases. For others, the trauma is externalized. A child might begin to act out and engage in mimicking behaviors—expressing the trauma outwardly through play or social interactions with peers and engaging in risky behaviors.
When trauma becomes a pattern in a child’s life, the consequences are amplified. They may anticipate future trauma and go through life on “high alert.” This causes child to live in a state of continuous anxiety—always in survival mode—throughout their teenage years and adulthood as well. Even if there is no longer any trauma present in the life of a teen or adult, the anxiety can persist for years and impact both everyday life and the way stressful or emotional situations are dealt with in the future.
Think of it this way: Even if a child, teen, or adult has escaped their trauma and established a calm work or home environment, that calm and safety may feel foreign after spending an extended period of time in survival mode. Especially if they have an anxiety disorder, this can cause them to create conflict in order to create an environment that requires a constant state of stress and anxiety, which is the only way they feel “normal.” In this way, trauma and toxic stress can create a vicious cycle.
Living in survival mode can make personal development a struggle, and those who experience this may find themselves repeating the same patterns and cycles over and over again throughout life without a lot of personal growth. An attitude of learned helplessness can develop out of childhood trauma, which causes teens and adults to project the helplessness they felt during traumatic experiences when they were younger onto current stressful situations, and even everyday life. This can make living life difficult at any age.
How Trauma Can Manifest as PTSD
In the case of PTSD, a traumatic event can become stuck in the brain’s hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that timestamps our memories and stores them. However, when we experience trauma, the hippocampus can become paralyzed, preventing the traumatic event from being timestamped and stored with the rest of our memories. Instead, the traumatic event can rise to the surface at inopportune times and re-play as if we’re living it again or watching it on a large movie screen. This is what happens when someone who has experienced trauma has a “flashback.” Living in fear of having a flashback in public, or ever again, can only add to a person’s anxiety and stress. It can even cause a person to fear going out in public.
Trauma can sometimes even be blocked from a person’s memory, which is the case for some ACEs. While this causes the root cause to remain unknown, the effects can manifest years later as anxiety and toxic stress. It is through intervention and therapy that such memories can be released and true healing can begin.
This is why early intervention and treatment are essential for children and teens who suffer from anxiety, especially if there’s any suspected trauma from the past. The sooner a person is able to pinpoint the root cause of the anxiety, the sooner the healing process can begin. This is an important step, as too many children are left with untreated anxiety. The longer a kid waits to receive help and treatment, the greater his or her risk of developing more severe mental health disorders further down the line becomes.
Does All Trauma Lead to Anxiety and PTSD?
Not every case of trauma will lead to an anxiety disorder or PTSD. It depends largely on a person’s genetic makeup and unique brain chemistry. It also depends on emotional intelligence, coping skills, and how much resiliency and support a person has. This is another reason why early intervention is so important for children and teens who have experienced traumatic events, significant amounts of stress, or high-conflict environments.