Trauma, particularly in childhood, may increase the risk of psychotic symptoms and the development of schizophrenia.

Trauma may sometimes cause physical changes in the body, which may increase a person’s risk of developing mental health conditions, including schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia can occur due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. In people who are susceptible to schizophrenia, traumatic life events may trigger the condition.

This article looks at the link between trauma and schizophrenia, other mental health conditions that trauma may cause, and when to seek professional help.

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Research suggests that changes in the nervous system and brain occur after trauma. Oxidative stress — the excess production of reactive oxygen species relative to the body’s ability to counteract their harmful effects — may lead to inflammation and an inability to control emotional responses, which can put a person at risk of mental health conditions and may promote the development of schizophrenia.

A combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as dangerous surroundings or living in poverty, can give rise to schizophrenia. If a person has a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia, trauma may trigger it.

Trauma during childhood may affect how the body responds to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which may lead to the development of psychotic symptoms.

Learn more about schizophrenia and dopamine.

Research suggests that schizophrenia occurs due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors, which can cause abnormal development in the brain.

In people with these risk factors, severely stressful life events, trauma, abuse, or neglect may trigger the condition.

In a meta-analysis of studies, researchers found that negative childhood experiences significantly increased the risk of developing psychosis and schizophrenia.

Although childhood trauma may lead to schizophrenia, symptoms may not appear until adulthood.

Schizophrenia can happen at any age, but it usually occurs between the late teens and early 30s and is unusual in anyone under the age of 12 years.

Learn more about trauma.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric condition that can occur after people have experienced trauma, such as physical or sexual assault, a vehicle accident, or a natural disaster. The symptoms of PTSD include:

  • intrusive memories
  • withdrawal
  • hypervigilance

A 2018 review notes that the symptoms of PTSD may overlap with those of schizophrenia. Both conditions can cause:

  • hallucinations
  • social isolation
  • dissociative symptoms, such as feeling detached or having memory problems

The review concluded that PTSD appears to be more prevalent among people with schizophrenia than it is in the general population, despite the similar levels of exposure to trauma.

It may be, therefore, that people with schizophrenia have an increased vulnerability to trauma. However, the research does not rule out the possibility that people with PTSD are more susceptible to schizophrenia.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, factors that may contribute to schizophrenia include:

  • Genetics: The risk of developing schizophrenia is more than six times higher among those who have a parent or sibling with the condition.
  • Environmental factors: Poor nutrition or exposure to viruses before birth increases the risk of developing schizophrenia. Autoimmune diseases may also lead to people developing psychosis.
  • Brain chemistry: Certain neurotransmitters, called dopamine and glutamate, may play a role in schizophrenia.
  • Substance use: Taking drugs that alter the mind, such as cannabis, during adolescence or early adulthood may increase the risk of schizophrenia.

Can trauma cause other types of mental illness?

Trauma and abuse as a child or adult can be a risk factor for developing other mental health conditions, including:

They can also put a person at higher risk of suicide.

The early diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia play an important role in recovery. Anyone who notices any symptoms of psychosis or schizophrenia should contact a doctor as soon as possible.

The symptoms of schizophrenia include:

  • hallucinations
  • delusions, in which a person may have irrational, false beliefs
  • unusual or illogical thinking patterns, such as disorganized thoughts and speech
  • movement disorder, in which a person has abnormal or repetitive movements
  • loss of motivation or interest in usual activities
  • social withdrawal
  • difficulty expressing emotions
  • speaking in monotone
  • low energy
  • difficulty making decisions
  • difficulty with using learned information
  • concentration problems

If people have experienced trauma and sustained a physical injury, they need to contact a doctor or go to a hospital right away. They might also need to contact the police.

If trauma affects a person’s mental health, a mental health professional can help by working with them to create an effective treatment plan.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides a national helpline that is available 24-7 every day of the year to provide mental health services. If people are in immediate danger, they can call 911 or their local emergency number.

Research suggests that there is a strong link between trauma and psychosis. Childhood trauma may increase the risk of schizophrenia. In adults, a high occurrence of adverse life events may also contribute to psychosis.

Treatments can help manage the symptoms of schizophrenia, and people with the condition can maintain a good quality of life. The more promptly people seek professional help after experiencing trauma, the sooner they can take steps to feel better and protect their mental health.

Trauma may cause changes in the body and affect neurotransmitters in the brain, increasing the risk of psychotic symptoms or schizophrenia.

Childhood trauma may trigger schizophrenia in those susceptible to it, and people may experience symptoms between their late teens and early 30s.

Trauma can also contribute to other mental health conditions. PTSD can cause similar symptoms to schizophrenia and may affect mood and cognition.

If people have a history of trauma and are experiencing symptoms of schizophrenia or other mental health conditions, they will need to speak to a healthcare professional as soon as possible.

Early diagnosis is an important part of recovery, and treatments can help manage the symptoms.