For many adults, childhood trauma and anxiety go hand in hand — and both are treatable.

If you live with anxiety, it’s natural to wonder what might be causing your symptoms. Typically, anxiety disorders stem from a combination of factors, such as:

  • genetics
  • learned coping strategies
  • chronic stress
  • traumatic events

Yet, there’s a common misconception that negative events in childhood affect you less. You might hear people say things like “children are resilient” or “they’re so young, they won’t even remember this.”

But in fact, childhood trauma can have profound and lifelong effects, and as 2020 research shows, there’s a particularly strong link with anxiety in adulthood.

Still, trauma-related anxiety is highly treatable. Getting the right treatment can help you live a healthy, fulfilling life.

Trauma in childhood can take many forms. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines childhood trauma as any traumatic event that “poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity” and can often result in lasting mental and physical effects.

Although traumatic experiences often involve physical danger, many do not. Trauma can arise from any situation where a child feels:

  • overwhelmed
  • isolated
  • unsafe

Examples of childhood trauma include:

The most well-known mental health condition associated with trauma is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Among children and teens, 3 to 15 percent of girls and 1 to 6 percent of boys develop PTSD following a traumatic event, according to the National Center for PTSD.

A 2018 study found that adults who had a history of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as physical and sexual abuse or neglect, experienced a range of mental health and physical conditions, including:

A 2010 study also found links between different types of childhood trauma and the onset of mental health conditions later on, such as:

In a 2018 study, researchers followed 1,336 children who experienced trauma at different points into their adult lives. They found that childhood trauma was associated with higher rates of adult mental health conditions, including any anxiety disorders.

Anxiety can manifest in different ways, such as:

  • generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): chronic, profound worry about seemingly everything.
  • panic disorder: recurrent panic attacks; an intense, overwhelming surge of anxiety with physical, emotional, and cognitive symptoms
  • agoraphobia: intense fear, worry, or panic that arises in public or crowded places that are difficult to leave
  • social anxiety disorder: intense fear of being judged, criticized, or rejected in social situations or when performing in front of others

Childhood trauma may even remain into late adulthood. In a 2019 study of 1,872 adults ages 65 to 77 years old, researchers found that experiencing early life stress, such as emotional trauma, was linked to greater anxiety symptoms in late adulthood.

Childhood trauma can create an environment that is chaotic, unstable, or unpredictable. The impact of this instability can be profound and lifelong.

For example, a child who grows up with an abusive or volatile parent may become hyper-vigilant toward their parent’s moods so they can protect themselves. As an adult, they constantly scan their environment and may overanalyze other people’s reactions, possibly predisposing them to an anxiety disorder.

Research from 2010 found that children who grew up in environments with a lot of conflict and adversity showed higher stress reactivity in early adulthood, which may put them at greater risk for developing mood and anxiety disorders.

Trauma and neurological changes

Certain types of childhood trauma may even change the structure and function of the brain.

A 2014 study found physical differences in the brains of young adults who experienced childhood maltreatment versus those who did not. Differences occurred in regions responsible for:

  • emotional regulation
  • self-awareness
  • the ability to “accurately attribute thoughts or intentions to others”

In a 2017 study of individuals who died by suicide, researchers concluded that experiencing severe childhood abuse may impair the connections between areas of the brain involved in processing emotions and cognitive functioning.

A 2019 study found that young adults who experienced childhood abuse and neglect showed greater activation in the amygdala — the brain’s emotional center — to threat. One year later, this greater activation partly explained the presence of anxiety and depression symptoms.

Young adults with a history of childhood trauma also experienced more stressful life events than their peers, further making them potentially vulnerable to mental health symptoms.

A 2020 literature review of 54 studies and a systematic review of 25 studies found that children who experienced trauma related to violence or abuse showed signs of faster aging at the biological level than children who didn’t undergo trauma.

Even though childhood trauma can have serious, devastating effects, both trauma and anxiety disorders are treatable. If you think your anxiety may be rooted in childhood trauma, you can try treatments that specifically help you address the traumatic events.

It can be important to work with a therapist who specializes in treating trauma and using the approach you’re considering.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

The American Psychological Association (APA) strongly recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as one type of treatment for trauma.

CBT therapists believe that thought patterns and behaviors are learned, and therefore can be unlearned and changed in therapy. In trauma-based CBT, you identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts around the traumatic events with the help of your therapist.

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) can help people process their traumatic memories by accessing those memories in a new context.

This 2019 review of seven randomized controlled trials found that EMDR reduced symptoms of traumatic stress.

During an EMDR session, you recall a traumatic memory while your therapist uses directed eye movements, taps, or tones. This prompts the brain to process the memory in a new way, which can help reduce distress and anxiety.

Prolonged exposure (PE) therapy

The more we avoid something, the deeper our anxiety around it grows. This is why APA-recommended PE therapy helps you safely and gradually face a feared memory, place, or situation you’ve been avoiding.

Your therapist supports you as you take small steps to imagine, process, and eventually experience your anxiety-provoking triggers.

Mindfulness-based therapies

Meditation — including mindfulness, body scans, and loving-kindness practices — may help in reducing anxiety.

Evidence is less clear on meditation’s effectiveness in treating trauma, but some research is promising. A 2018 review showed that mindfulness-based therapies reduced PTSD symptoms.

However, the authors concluded that more research is needed to directly compare these treatments to first-line PTSD therapies.

Complementary and alternative treatments

There are a number of alternative treatment options, which may help reduce anxiety- and trauma-related symptoms. For example, you might try:

If you’ve experienced childhood trauma, you’re not alone. More than two-thirds of children report at least one traumatic event by 16 years old, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Many also develop anxiety that stems from their traumatic experiences.

However, both anxiety and trauma are treatable. By working with a therapist, you can find the right approach for your needs, such as processing your trauma and easing your anxiety.

If you’re ready to get help but don’t know where to begin, check out Psych Central’s guide to finding mental health care.