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Trauma, PTSD, and Depression: What’s the Connection?


If you’ve been through trauma and are developing symptoms of depression, there are many steps you can take to help you cope.

Surviving a trauma is hard enough – and it can also affect your mental health long after the trauma itself has occurred.

The types of trauma vary widely, ranging from public traumatic events, such as terrorism, to more personal traumatic experiences, such as sexual abuse. Whatever the specific experience, any trauma can shake you deeply.

Depression can be both a direct and indirect consequence of trauma. However, not all depression is caused by trauma – other factors that cause depression include genetics, environment, and other medical conditions.

Dealing with trauma and depression at the same time can be overwhelming. However, many people live happy and fulfilled lives because of the treatment and support of others.

In short, yes. Depression is a common reaction to a traumatic event.

In fact, a Research report 2013 suggested that 52% (over half) of participants with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also suffered from major depressive disorder.

Additionally, a 2015 study found a clear link between childhood trauma and depressive symptoms later in life. This study found that out of 349 people with chronic depression, 75.6% reported having suffered trauma as a child. In addition, people with a history of multiple traumatic events had an increased severity of depressive symptoms.

Depression is more than feeling down or depressed. Symptoms of depression can include:

  • lack of energy
  • lack of interest and pleasure in the activities you enjoyed
  • significant weight loss or gain
  • excessive sleep or insomnia
  • excessive guilt
  • inability to concentrate
  • feeling of worthlessness
  • recurring thoughts of death or suicide

Note that not all people who experience a traumatic event will develop depression or PTSD.

Traumatic experiences can have a significant impact on your brain and nervous system, even if you don’t get diagnosed with depression later on.

This emotional response to trauma can have a significant impact on your neurological (brain) and physiological (body) functions. It can affect chemicals in your brain and nervous system.

When faced with intense emotional stress or a dangerous situation, the body naturally engages the fight-or-flight system to help you escape the threat.

However, if you cannot escape the situation, the body will trigger the freeze response. Here, the nervous system stops, or freezes, to protect itself, like a gazelle “playing dead” when it cannot escape a predator.

According to polyvagal theory, if your body goes into the gel response, it is called dorsal vagal arrest. This is because this stopping state is controlled by a part of the nervous system called the dorsal vagus nerve.

When your body enters this state of back vagal “freezing”, you may experience symptoms of depression, such as numbness, disconnection, fatigue, and slowing down. Triggers of previous trauma can cause your body to enter this state long after the trauma itself has ended.

Depression and PTSD are different disorders, but they usually occur together. The National Center for PTSD reports that depression is almost 3-5 times more likely in people with PTSD.

There is some overlap between depression and PTSD. Both conditions share the following symptoms:

  • difficulty concentrating
  • insomnia
  • loss of pleasure in the activities you enjoyed
  • irritability

On the other hand, PTSD differs from depression by these signs:

  • reliving the traumatic event, such as intrusive memories, nightmares, flashbacks or being triggered
  • avoiding situations that remind you of the traumatic event
  • increased negative thoughts about you that weren’t there before the traumatic event
  • a tendency to be on high alert, nervous and constantly seeking danger, known as hypervigilance

Psychotherapy is the recommended treatment for both PTSD and depression. In therapy, trauma-focused treatments are often even more effective.

Therapies that treat trauma may focus on:

  • intrusive memories
  • related thoughts
  • emotions
  • avoidance and escape behaviors

If you decide to seek help with the after-effects of trauma, it may be helpful to speak with a therapist who is specialized or has experience in treating PTSD. They will be able to offer therapies specially designed to meet the unique needs of people with trauma.

Common treatments for PTSD include prolonged exposure (PE) and cognitive processing therapy (CPT).

For example, therapists can use Exposure therapy to help you face and manage your fears in a safe environment. Therapists do not tend to use these techniques for depression or other related disorders.

Psychotherapy for the treatment of depression may focus on:

  • identify life challenges that make depression worse and work on ways to improve them
  • identify negative thought patterns contributing to depression
  • improve patterns of interaction with others that contribute to depression
  • help find opportunities to incorporate enjoyable activities
  • work with a support system to help with therapy

Often times, resolving PTSD can lead to a reduction in depressive symptoms without much intervention. Other times, skills learned from PTSD treatments like PE and CPT can be easily applied to depressive symptoms if these symptoms persist after successful PTSD treatment.

Depression and trauma can be linked. Although depression and PTSD can have overlapping symptoms, they are separate conditions. However, you can have both depression and PTSD.

Without treatment, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder can get worse over time. But help is available, and with effective treatment, know that you don’t have to live with fear, sadness, and extreme stress.

If you are in a crisis, it is best to contact the nearest emergency room or a national crisis line such as Lifebuoy cat Where Crisis text line. If you are having thoughts of suicide, you can get help by calling National lifeline for suicide prevention.

If you are not in a crisis, but feel ready to speak with someone, you can find tips for finding a mental health professional who specializes in PTSD or depression by checking out our article on finding a mental health professional. ‘a therapist.