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Understanding the Connection Between Schizophrenia and Trauma

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 24 million or one in 300 people experience schizophrenia symptoms worldwide. Schizophrenia is not as common as other mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. However, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) notes, despite its lower prevalence, schizophrenia is in the top 15 leading causes of disability worldwide. Moreover, schizophrenia often presents in late adolescence and early adulthood, which highlights the lesser-known connection between schizophrenia and trauma. Simply put, exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) increases the risk for mental health disorders. Therefore, it is important to address the impact trauma can have on your long-term well-being.

At The Guest House, we know that the root and/or trigger of many mental health conditions come from unresolved trauma. Many people are often unaware of the impact the traumas of their childhood have had on their life in adulthood. When trauma is left unaddressed, it can have long-term negative consequences on your physical and psychological health.

Moreover, mental health disorders like schizophrenia and trauma can make it difficult to manage your daily life and maintain relationships. Therefore, at The Guest House, our commitment to trauma-informed care can give you the space to uncover the roots of your self-defeating behaviors. Furthermore, understanding the relationship between schizophrenia and trauma can give you the tools to build healthy coping strategies for long-term healing.

What Is Schizophrenia?

You may have heard, read, or seen many stereotypical representations of schizophrenia in the media. As noted in the Schizophrenia Bulletin, stigma is a form of structural discrimination that perpetuates negative beliefs about the self and others. Many marginalized communities, like people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community, experience stigma. Stigmatization also impacts many other populations, such as those with mental health disorders.

For many people, the stigma of mental health disorders like schizophrenia can further harm their mental and emotional wellness. Therefore, understanding what schizophrenia is can give you insight into how it may be impacting your life.

According to NIMH, schizophrenia is a mental health disorder that impacts how you think, feel, and behave. Moreover, as noted in Medline Plus, as a serious brain illness, schizophrenia may make you hear voices that are not there or think people are trying to hurt you. When schizophrenia is active, it can be disconcerting for you and your loved ones, as losing touch with reality makes it difficult to participate in your daily life and relationships.

In addition, as NIMH states, schizophrenia can present differently for each person. However, there are three main symptom categories: psychotic, negative, and cognitive symptoms. Listed below are some of the symptoms you may experience when schizophrenia is active:

  • Psychotic symptoms: Reflect a distortion in your thinking, actions, and the way you experience the world; may cause you to lose touch with reality
    • Hallucinations: A false perception of objects or situations involving your senses
      • You may hear, see, smell, taste, or feel that are not really there
    • Delusions: A strong belief in untrue things like people trying to hurt you or sending secret messages to you
      • These beliefs may seem irrational to others
    • Thought disorder: Unusual or illogical thinking patterns make it difficult for you to organize your thoughts and speech
      • You may stop talking in the middle of a thought or jump from one topic to the next
    • Movement disorder: A group of nervous system conditions that interrupt normal body movements
      • You may exhibit abnormal body movements like repeating certain motions over and over
  • Negative symptoms: Impact how you feel, show emotions, and function in your daily life
    • You may seem depressed and withdrawn from your social life
    • Difficulty planning and sticking to life activities like grocery shopping
    • You find it difficult to anticipate and feel pleasure in your everyday life
    • Your voice may sound dull
    • You have difficulty showing facial expressions
    • More likely to avoid social interaction or your social interactions are awkward
    • Decrease in energy
  • Cognitive symptoms: Impact your thought processes like attention, concentration, and memory which makes it difficult to function in your day-to-day life
    • Difficulty processing information to make decisions
    • You may find it difficult to use the information after learning it
    • Difficulty focusing and or paying attention

Moreover, the symptoms of schizophrenia showcase how untreated mental health disorders can impede your life. Now that you know how schizophrenia can present in different people, you can deepen your understanding of its causes.

Risk Factors for Schizophrenia

As noted by NIMH, several risk factors may contribute to the development of schizophrenia. Some of the risk factors for schizophrenia include genetics, brain structure and function, and environment. Listed below are some of the ways different risk factors can lead to schizophrenia:

  • Genetics:
    • It can run in families, but there is no single gene responsible for schizophrenia
    • Many different genes may increase your risk for the disorder
  • Brain structure and function:
    • Certain brain areas may be different sizes than other typical brains
    • There may be differences in the connections between brain areas
    • Some brain differences may develop before birth
  • Environment:
    • A combination of genetic factors, environmental aspects, and life experiences can lead to schizophrenia
      • Exposure to viruses and nutritional issues before birth
      • Traumatic experiences
        • Poverty
        • ACEs

These risk factors for schizophrenia highlight the co-occurring relationship between schizophrenia and trauma. Moreover, living in or through physically and psychologically distressing events can take a toll on your mind, body, and spirit. Therefore, unaddressed trauma, especially in early childhood, can have long-lasting consequences that impede your life in adulthood.

What Is Trauma?

When we think about trauma, we often associate it with severe physical injuries or the emotional distress experienced by a veteran during active duty. However, trauma can involve a much broader event(s) that can happen to anyone at any age. In fact, most people will experience some form of trauma in their life. As stated in Psychological Medicine, a traumatic event can be defined as direct or indirect exposure to threats of death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Therefore, a traumatic event can include witnessing physical and or emotional harm, dealing with a chronic or life-threatening illness, and the loss of a loved one.

Traumatic events can be difficult for anyone. However, healthy support systems in adulthood increase your access to adaptive coping skills and resiliency to recovery. Without healthy coping skills, you are at an increased risk for negative physical and psychological health outcomes. Thus, traumatic events are particularly detrimental to children who are still learning how to process their experiences and regulate their emotions.

It may be difficult to imagine ACEs being a common part of many people’s childhoods. Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, in the United States, 64% of adults reported at least one ACE before they were 18. Moreover, one in six, or 17.3% of U.S. adults, reported experiencing four or more ACEs before they were 18.

Furthermore, in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, J. Douglas Bremner states that traumatic stress can have lasting changes in different areas of the brain. Experiencing traumatic stress in childhood, when your brain is still developing, can have a profound impact on your mental health. Moreover, these changes to brain structure and function can make it difficult to regulate your response to stress in healthy ways. Therefore, the impact of traumatic stress on the developing brain of children highlights the connection between schizophrenia and trauma.

The Connection Between Schizophrenia and Trauma

Differences in the structure and function of the brain are a risk factor for schizophrenia. Therefore, brain features can showcase the way schizophrenia and trauma may impact each other. According to an article from Frontiers in Neuroscience, schizophrenia and trauma share similar risk characteristics since childhood trauma is a severe form of stress. Thus, a strong connector point for schizophrenia and trauma is stress and stress responses. Childhood trauma creates stress, which leads to abnormal brain development.

Moreover, the difference in brain structure and function caused by stress further increases your vulnerability to stress. Therefore, a combination of stress, like psychosocial stress and abnormal brain development during vulnerable brain periods, can trigger schizophrenia. The combination of genetic and environmental factors seen in schizophrenia and trauma highlights childhood trauma as a preexisting vulnerability for the development of schizophrenia. In addition, the relationships between schizophrenia and trauma can be seen in their connection to psychosis.

As noted by author Ingo Schäfer in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, childhood trauma, sexual abuse, in particular, has shown an increased risk for psychosis or psychotic symptoms. Schizophrenia and trauma, then, share a connection to psychosis, as psychotic symptoms are also a feature of active schizophrenia. Moreover, childhood trauma is associated with an increased sensitivity to stress and difficulty processing stress. Therefore, the combination of stress sensitivity and daily life stressors in adulthood intensifies the negative symptoms of psychosis.

Early experiences with trauma create a cycle of psychological distress that impedes your ability to cope with stress in healthy ways. If your early developmental stages were disrupted by traumatic events, it likely prevented you from developing safe coping skills to support a fulfilling and independent life. Therefore, the stress of early trauma emphasizes the negative physical and psychological impact of schizophrenia and trauma on your well-being.

However, you may question how you can address the impact of schizophrenia and trauma on your life. How can you recover when the traumas that harmed your brain development have already happened?

Addressing Schizophrenia and Trauma

You cannot go back in time and prevent yourself from having ACEs. In fact, no one can even prevent traumatic events from happening even in adulthood. There are many traumatic events that society should and does strive to prevent. However, some stressful events like sickness and death are unavoidable parts of life. Thus, addressing the impact of stress on schizophrenia and trauma can be an important step on your recovery journey.

Moreover, as Bremner notes, schizophrenia and trauma indicate an impairment in your ability to process stress. Therefore, trauma-focused treatments could be beneficial to recovery as you address the roots of your physiological distress. Yet, actively experiencing psychotic symptoms can be a barrier to doing the necessary trauma work for long-term recovery. This is because psychosis presents symptoms of hallucinations and delusions that disrupt your connection to reality. When your contact with reality is disrupted, it is more difficult to engage in effective trauma treatment.

Therefore, it is important to first find more safety in yourself and stabilize your symptoms before you can address the relationship between schizophrenia and trauma. According to the Pharmacy and Therapeutics Journal, managing schizophrenia typically involves pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy. A combination of nonpharmacological and pharmacological treatment methods focuses on treating your symptoms, preventing relapse, and increasing your adaptive functioning skills. Moreover, according to the “Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode (RAISE)” from NIMH, an early diagnosis and treatment supports an increase in recovery from psychosis.

As the NIMH article notes, left untreated, psychotic symptoms can disrupt work and school and strain relationships. In addition, untreated psychotic symptoms can increase your risk for substance use disorder (SUD), self-injurious behavior (SIB), and poverty. Thus, seeking support to address active schizophrenia and psychotic symptoms can give you space for trauma work. When you are no longer actively experiencing psychotic symptoms, you can truly start doing the work to understand the relationship between your schizophrenia and trauma for long-term healing.

The Process of Healing Schizophrenia and Trauma

Once you have established more safety in yourself, the process of healing schizophrenia and trauma can start. As the CDC notes, a trauma-informed approach to recovery does not rely on a single technique for healing. Rather a trauma-informed approach looks toward six guiding principles to address the way traumatic stress impedes your well-being. Listed below are the six guiding principles of trauma-informed care:

  • Safety
  • Trustworthiness and transparency
  • Peer support
  • Collaboration and mutuality
  • Empowerment and choice
  • Cultural, historical, and gender issues

The guiding principles of trauma-informed care can give you the space to uncover the root of your schizophrenia and trauma. Thus, understanding how your early traumas have impacted you opens the door to dismantling maladaptive coping mechanisms. As you deepen your self-understanding, it encourages you to lean into adaptive coping strategies to process your experiences and life stressors. Furthermore, with support, you can find a path to recovery from schizophrenia and trauma that considers you and your specific experiences.

As noted in “Recovery From Schizophrenia: A Concept in Search of Research” by Robert Paul Liberman and Alex Kopelowicz, recovery is a process. Recovery is a process in which the processes and stages of recovery are preparations for recovery itself. Therefore, recovery from schizophrenia and trauma has many pathways that are influenced by a variety of factors. Recovery is not just about following a treatment plan or medication management, but a whole person process for mind, body, and spirit. Thus, elements like hope, empowerment, insight and awareness, self-acceptance, collaboration, and personal autonomy are all impactful to your healing journey.

Building a Path to Long-Term Recovery at The Guest House

Taking a holistic approach to trauma-informed care acknowledges the importance of healing the whole person. At The Guest House, our fundamental mission is to help you uncover the underlying causes of the distress that has impeded your well-being. We know trauma is often at the root of self-defeating behaviors and mental health disorders. Thus, we are committed to providing the space and tools for you to take your own journey of self-discovery and healing.

While the traumas of your childhood may have left an indelible mark on you, it does not have to define your present or your future. With a wide range of therapeutic modalities, we can support you as you uncover your path to recovery from schizophrenia and trauma to build the fulfilling life you deserve.

Schizophrenia can make it difficult to function in your daily life and maintain relationships. Moreover, it can be difficult to build toward long-term recovery when you do not understand the root of your psychological distress. Likely, your childhood trauma has impeded your ability to regulate your stress response and adapt to life stressors. Thus, it is important to seek support and establish more safety in yourself by treating your psychotic symptoms so you can truly understand the relationship between your schizophrenia and trauma. At The Guest House, we believe a holistic approach to trauma-informed care can give you space to build healthy coping skills to address trauma’s impact on you for long-term healing. Call us at (855) 483-7800 today.