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David Baxter PhD

Late Founder

How Trauma Can Cause Mental Illness (It's Not Just a Chemical Imbalance)

by Mary Beth Fox, Tiny Buddha
July 22, 2022

“What seems to be clear is that we humans are an accumulation of our traumatic experiences, that each trauma contributes to our biology, and that this biology determines, to some extent, how we respond to further traumatic events as they emerge in our lives.” ~Shaili Jain

The stigma of mental health is decreasing. That’s wonderful, but the way we’re doing it is wrong and damaging. We are ignoring the trauma that is so prevalent and pervasive in our society. Think about how many times you’ve read something equating mental illness to cancer or some other disease. People say that taking medication for mental illness should be considered the same as taking medicine for blood pressure, cholesterol, or other medical issues.

The phrase “chemical imbalance” is used quite often when referring to mental illness. There is a connection, but there’s so much more to mental illness than that.

When we say that mental illness is simply a result of a chemical imbalance, we are pretending our trauma isn’t what causes so many of our mental health struggles. Most of us have had more than enough of others invalidating our trauma and the mental illnesses resulting from it.

Now, before anybody starts screaming that their mental illness is purely a result of a chemical imbalance, hear me out. I do believe it is possible to have a genetic chemical imbalance. At the same time, I think that possibility needs to include a look at epigenetics. I’m not going into detail about that. Take yourself on over to Google for that. What I will say about epigenetics is that I believe these “genetic chemical imbalances” come from trauma that is inherited from each generation. It has been proven that trauma can change our DNA. That is probably why scientists have shown that some have a genetic predisposition to mental illness. The brain has a chemical imbalance as a result of epigenetics.

Now, back to simply labeling mental illness as a chemical imbalance. I suppose it feels like a softer blow for some to believe that’s why they have a mental illness. This allows them to think that they and/or their experiences have nothing to do with their mental illness. Let me just take this pill to fix my brain. When I hear or read that anywhere, I get incredibly frustrated. It is minimizing or completely ignoring the fact that mental illness is typically a result of trauma.

My father was a depressed alcoholic, who died of cirrhosis nine years ago. I experienced a good bit of trauma as a result of his drunken rages on top of him being absent for a large part of my childhood. Not only that, but I had the additional trauma of my mother pretending there was nothing wrong with him. I was also taught to pretend the violence wasn’t a big deal.

It was incredibly confusing for me as a little girl because my mind and body knew those experiences were traumatic, but I heard otherwise. I got a double whammy when it came to mental illness. Unfortunately for me, my mother was not emotionally available. I needed a parent who would validate my feelings and allow me to express what I was feeling.

So, I had the genetic predisposition to depression from my father and probably my mother as well since she stayed with him for many years. However, I also had severe depression and anxiety as a result of my childhood trauma.

I believed my depression was simply genetic and a chemical imbalance until I began therapy. As it became clearer that my childhood trauma was the biggest reason I struggled with my mental health, that way too simple theory began to piss me off. If a genetic chemical imbalance was the sole reason I was depressed and had anxiety, that meant my trauma shouldn’t have affected me the way it did. That didn’t sit well with me.

How could a genetic chemical imbalance result in my thinking that I was worthless and unlovable? How could it be the reason I never felt safe, emotionally or physically? It just was not possible in my mind! A genetic chemical imbalance wouldn’t cause those negative, false beliefs. It would make me feel depressed or anxious overall, but not linked to any particular event.

Witnessing violence in my home was the reason I had anxiety. I never felt physically safe after the first episode. I was always creating plans of what I could do to be safe if this or that happened. When I was little, there was a roof over a storage shed outside my window. If I heard my father throwing furniture or screaming violently, I could go out my window, slide down the roof, and run into the woods behind my house. I had escape plans for every room in my house. I also used to sleep with a portable phone so that I could call 911 if I was ever somehow brave enough to do that.

Hearing that the violence I witnessed was not a big deal, and being told not to talk to anybody about it, resulted in a very confused little girl.

I felt intense sadness because I believed that my father didn’t love me enough to quit drinking. When I would voice that sadness, I was told that I didn’t have a reason to be sad. So then I thought there was something really wrong with me.

Why am I so sad if I don’t have a reason to be? Why should I feel unlovable if that’s stupid to say or feel?

Once I began therapy, I learned that all of those thoughts and feelings resulted from my trauma. So, even if I didn’t have that predisposition to a genetic chemical imbalance, I would still have had depression and anxiety.

Any child who experienced anything similar to what I experienced would have depression and anxiety. That genetic chemical imbalance garbage was keeping me from acknowledging the fact that trauma was the cause.

As I mentioned earlier, I hear a lot of people saying they need medication for mental illness simply because they have a chemical imbalance. In my opinion, that is incredibly dangerous and prevents people from healing. It typically results in people thinking a pill will solve all of their mental health struggles. I’ve yet to hear about anybody who took a pill that completely removed all symptoms of mental illness.

Now, I’m not saying the medication does not help. It most certainly does for many people. However, there is much more to mental illness. Not only that, but the chemical imbalance can also be a result of trauma. There is much more needed to heal trauma than just a pill.

In my late teens and into my early twenties, I tried tons of different medications for depression, but I knew I needed more than that. Also, each medication only helped a little bit, and only with the day-to-day functioning to get my work done. I was just going through the motions though. I never even had moments of peace or happiness. There was no medication that changed my feelings of worthlessness. I still felt unlovable. If I heard or saw certain things, I would get triggered with anxiety. Quickly, my mind would return to that childhood fear that I wasn’t safe emotionally or physically.

If my mental illness wasn’t a result of trauma, then the medications would’ve cured it all.

Oh, how I wish those medications would’ve been the answer for me. That would’ve saved me a lot of time, energy, and money in therapy. Therapists wouldn’t even exist if mental illness were nothing but a simple chemical imbalance. Medications for mental illness truly would be “happy” pills.

It just doesn’t work that way. Mental illness typically results from years of trauma, covered up or not processed.

Trauma needs intense therapy in order for the brain to get re-wired. Trauma also needs to be acknowledged and validated for people to function in a healthier way and begin the healing process. Saying mental illness is just a chemical imbalance sends the message that your brain is just screwed up and some loose screws need to be tightened.

Equating mental illness to cancer or any other medical illness or disease is denying the major damage trauma causes.

For me, I had enough people downplay my childhood trauma. I’ve also heard way too many people downplay their own. So, let’s stop doing that. Let’s start naming trauma as equally damaging, if not more, than a simple chemical imbalance.

Name the traumas that resulted in your mental illness. Acknowledge the significant impact that trauma has had on your life and the ways it continues to affect you on a daily basis. And find a good therapist who can guide you through processing your trauma, as I did, so you can heal. Your mind, body, and soul need you to do that.


About Mary Beth Fox

Mary Beth is a licensed professional counselor and mental health blogger. She guides readers through healing feelings of never being good enough that were created in childhood. Learn more here. She helps readers understand and heal their Not Good Enough Stuff, never feeling good enough, to create a life of peace. Mary Beth writes about boundaries, inner child, relationships and generational trauma. Check out her topics here and subscribe to Not Good Enough Stuff here.
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