“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.”
This is how Khaled Hosseini sets the scene in the opening lines of The Kite Runner. But it’s far from fiction – what happens in our childhood can greatly impact our lives. Sometimes, the burden of childhood trauma can cause depression, even years after it’s all gone. Could you be depressed because of your childhood experiences?
In this article, we’ll show you how your childhood might have impacted your depression, and offer some steps you can take to heal.
What was your childhood like?
When we are children, we need love and protection from our parents. That’s biologically encoded in us – because, otherwise, how could we survive? But not all parents are here for us to take us into their safe and loving embrace.
If you’ve experienced abuse, you know well how hard a childhood can be. Instead of playing with your friends and toys, you had to find a way to save yourself from an angry or distant parent. What did you have to run away from? Was it the bruises on your skin, or the insulting voices? Were you humiliated and led to believe you don’t matter? Or maybe your parents weren’t even present? We’d like to hear your story! If you want to share, let us know in the comments.
But, no matter how the story goes, the end game is usually the same: depression. A study in 2015 found that 76% of the chronically depressed patients reported clinically significant histories of childhood trauma. Let’s take a closer look at why this happens.
A research study published in journal Development and Psychopathology explains the link between childhood and depression through a concept of latent vulnerability. Here’s what that means.
While you were fighting to survive, your childhood mind had to be your superhero. It had to protect you not only from the scary things happening around you, but from your own thoughts as well. That’s why your brain wired itself in a specific way – it may have suppressed your emotions, or made you closed off to the world around you. By making these changes, it made you vulnerable. But this vulnerability was not obvious at the time. It may have stayed dormant inside you, waiting for the right time to come out.
What triggers this vulnerability? How can you know if it shaped your depression?
Latent becomes visible
Latent vulnerability makes itself known when something in your adult life triggers the child that wants to protect itself.
For example, do you often feel frozen with fear when someone raises their voice at you? A 2013 study found that being yelled at increased children’s risk of developing depression – so it wouldn’t be surprising if you still carried this within you.
You may also have very low self esteem. You may believe you’re worthless, and tell yourself all kinds of negative things. Or maybe you feel a great pressure to be perfect in everything you do, because your young mind learned that nothing less than perfection is tolerable. This is shown in research study published in Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology: depressive symptoms in children can increase the need to satisfy unrealistically high standards.
You could also be feeling anxious about losing people around you. You might think your partner or friend doesn’t like you, and fear they might leave you. And maybe, you don’t even let anyone get close to you. What if they hurt you? Can you trust anyone? You can learn more about these feelings in our videos about attachment theory.
The list of symptoms you could be feeling is endless. What is it that you’re feeling? Can you tie it back to something specific that happened in your childhood?
Recovery is possible!
Do you feel like what we’ve said so far describes you? Was your childhood difficult for you to handle, and left you depressed as a result? If you think that might be the case, we want you to know that recovery is possible! Please don’t hesitate to talk to a mental health professional! There are different types of therapy designed specifically to treat trauma survivors.
For example, a schema therapy is focused on reframing negative beliefs you might have about life and yourself through a process called limited reparenting. This means recognizing, articulating, validating and fulfilling your emotional needs. While working with your therapist, you might try out techniques such as guided imagery, role-playing exercises, schema flashcards and schema dialogues.
Research published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry shows that schema therapy can help reduce symptoms of chronic depression. Studies in 2006 and 2009 even showed its effectiveness in patients with borderline personality disorder!
This type of therapy was developed by Jeffrey Young, an American psychologist. He wrote some amazing books about the topic, too! Check out the link in the description if you’re interested to learn more about it. We also linked some additional resources explaining other types of therapy you could try.
Dealing with depression is not easy! Especially when you’ve been carrying it in you for such a long time… But you must know that you don’t have to keep looking at the same deserted alley. It may always be somewhere within you, but you can learn to look away. Do you think you’re ready to start a path to recovery? Let us know in the comments! And remember – we’re always here for you!
- Jeffrey E. Young, “Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide” – https://www.amazon.com/Schema-Therapy-Practitioners-Jeffrey-Young/dp/1593853726
- Jeffrey E. Young, “Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior and Feel Great Again” – https://www.amazon.com/Reinventing-Your-Life-Breakthrough-Negative/dp/0452272041
- Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: https://www.mentalhealthctr.com/trauma-focused-therapy-for-adults/
- Types of trauma therapy: https://traumacounseling.com/trauma-therapy-blog/types-of-trauma-therapy/
Asseraf, M., & Vaillancourt, T. (2014). Longitudinal Links Between Perfectionism and Depression in Children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 43(5), 895–908. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10802-014-9947-9
Farrell, J. M., Shaw, I. A., & Webber, M. A. (2009). A schema-focused approach to group psychotherapy for outpatients with borderline personality disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 40(2), 317–328. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2009.01.002
Kellogg, S. H., & Young, J. E. (2006). Schema therapy for borderline personality disorder. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(4), 445–458. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.20240
Malogiannis, I. A., Arntz, A., Spyropoulou, A., Tsartsara, E., Aggeli, A., Karveli, S., Vlavianou, M., Pehlivanidis, A., Papadimitriou, G. N., & Zervas, I. (2014). Schema therapy for patients with chronic depression: A single case series study. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 45(3), 319–329. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbtep.2014.02.003
McCrory, E. J., & Viding, E. (2015). The theory of latent vulnerability: Reconceptualizing the link between childhood maltreatment and psychiatric disorder. Development and Psychopathology, 27(2), 493–505. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0954579415000115
Negele, A., Kaufhold, J., Kallenbach, L., & Leuzinger-Bohleber, M. (2015). Childhood Trauma and Its Relation to Chronic Depression in Adulthood. Depression Research and Treatment, 2015, 1–11. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/650804
Psychology Tools. (n.d.). Schema Modes Therapy Exercises & Worksheets. https://www.psychologytools.com/professional/therapies/schema-therapy/
Wang, M. T., & Kenny, S. (2013). Longitudinal Links Between Fathers’ and Mothers’ Harsh Verbal Discipline and Adolescents’ Conduct Problems and Depressive Symptoms. Child Development, 85(3), 908–923. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12143