Childhood Trauma Tied to Greater Social Dysfunction in Adults with Major Mental Illness

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Article by Traci Pedersen Source Elsevier

Childhood trauma is tied to impaired social cognition in adults diagnosed with major psychiatric disorders, according to a new Irish study published in the journal European Psychiatry.

‘Social cognition’ is a psychology term related to how people process and apply information regarding other people and social interactions. It focuses on the role that cognitive processes play in social situations. For example, the way we think about others significantly influences how we think, feel, and interact with the world around us.

The study findings show that a traumatic early social environment often leads to social cognitive problems and greater illness severity for people with schizophreniabipolar disorderborderline personality disorder, major depressive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Early childhood neglect, abuse, and/or trauma puts patients at greater risk for developing cognitive impairments that will later affect social perception and interaction, a core aspect of disability in major psychiatric disorders,” said lead investigator Gary Donohoe, MPsychSc, DClinPsych, PhD, Centre for Neuroimaging and Cognitive Genomics at the National University of Ireland.

Problems with social cognitive function are a hallmark feature of major psychiatric disorders resulting in poor social and occupational functioning, specifically with regard to emotion recognition and regulation, theory of mind (the ability to attribute mental states to oneself and others), attributional style, and social perception.

Traumatic childhood experiences — such as emotional and physical abuse and neglect, early loss of caregivers, and insecure attachment styles — are reported in up to 85 percent of patients with various psychiatric disorders.

The findings help us gain a better understanding of the links between a traumatic early social environment and subsequent social cognitive problems and greater illness severity for a range of major psychiatric disorders in adulthood.

The first three years of life are a very sensitive period for the development of attachment relationships, and exposure to trauma during this time has irreversible effects on future cognitive, social, and emotional development.

The association between childhood adversity and insecure attachment is supported by a number of studies. Once a dysfunctional attachment pattern is formed in childhood, it tends to persist later in life and can cause misperceptions of others’ intentions and beliefs.

Higher levels of threat vigilance can distract abuse victims from processing peripheral cognitive and social information, and the lack of stable, positive role models can interfere with their ability to recognize and respond to emotional cues.

The researchers hope the new findings will guide future public health efforts to develop clinical interventions that reduce the consequences of childhood trauma.

“With a better understanding of the connections between early trauma and later deficits, mental health clinicians may be able to develop strategic interventions that ameliorate patients’ disabilities and improve their quality of life. The fact that these deficits are not generally improved by antipsychotic medication makes social cognition an important treatment target and the development of a causal working model of the deficits of crucial importance,” Donohoe said.

The study involved a systematic assessment of more than 2,650 published papers on the topic to provide a comprehensive picture of current research.

Of these, 25 research articles were found to meet the study’s strict criteria and were included in the published review, but the study authors point out that more research is needed to determine the relationship between early adversity and genetic risk and how they contribute to social cognitive development.


  1. I find it sort of weird that it has taken academics as long to come up with these findings as is also the case with the link between PTSD and Eating Disorders… nonetheless it is greatly helpful to know my own understanding stemming out of my personal struggle of years is not baseless… not just a product of my imagination. Thank you for sharing these insights.

    • No, it’s not just a product of your imagination. I’ve just been reading your blog. It’s amazing. I’ve learned so much about your part of the world and its politics. You write so well. I come from a country (Ireland) that has a very troubled political history so I could identify with much of what you had written and understood about the pain of seeing terrorism in your country. I grew up my fellow countrymen bombing each other to bits all in the name of religion. I hope Pakistan reaches peace someday soon. All the best Erin

  2. Thank you for your interest in my blog Erin. I am yet to find conviction enough to write about my personal journey. Surprisingly that is something I am finding really hard to give words to… despite being able to write on other subjects. I admire the simplicity and truthfulness of your personal accounts all the much more knowing how difficult it is to give words to experiences of such immense pain that leave you scarred for the rest of your life… not sure about you but it feels writing about these personal experiences kind of makes you relive the whole thing… I gave up on therapy and medication a good while back – unfortunately most of the psychologists here do not tend to possess adequate insight into CSA and the plethora of related issues that follow for the rest of your days… I have been working on myself and reading to understand how my various issues are interlinked… I greatly appreciate the help I have received from what you share… especially on mornings when I have desperately needed someone to tell me what you end up posting… 😉 Best Wishes.

    • Hi Zara, I do hope you find the convinction to write of your personal journey. You will find it so therapeutic. You are such a wonderful writer and to give voice to your experience by putting pen to paper would be phenomenal. Just think how cleansing it would be to get that story out of your soul and head. To sort through your feelings and give testimony and give witness to what happened to you. Here is how I started. It may help you. Please contact me any time you wish to talk. I am here any time. All the best for the future. Erin

      • Thank you so much Erin for such kind words. I understand the effect it can have… writing it all out… it may just serve as some sort of a closure. I guess I am scared somewhere but as you share, I hope one day I am just pushed to do it, and get this burden off my chest to some extent. To be honest I am lucky I found your blog and You. Take good care of yourself.

      • I hope you get past feeling scared to write your feelings down. You will benefit from it enormously. Spent more of today reading through your blog. Amazing!!!! It is not easy being a woman is it ? Erin

      • I hope so too… and you are very right it is not easy being a woman… it took me a while to realize life is certainly easier for a man… not just in the East but in the West too…

    • Zara… Hello!! PLZ remember that the “fear” of speaking out, expressing our Very Real traumas and reactions therein, and what others may think/judge our realities is most certainly the “WHY” of so Many of we SURVIVORS feeling we are still in a place of “shame” or “deserving” that which we have undergone. YOU Matter!! YOU are Divine!!! We ALL are!!! Honor YourSelf and what you have Survived!! Can it feel like “survival” is yet another “horror”?? Heck Yeah!! Your experiences are/were horrifying & devastating and Oh I most certainly understand how “cruel” ( my own Reactions) and clueless others can be. BUT one thing I personally have discovered is those odl adages are right on target. 1) We are not given more than we can handle (even when it REALLY feels quite the opposite ) and 2) This Too Shall pass. Sounds so simple BUT it IS a Truth!! It has taken me Decades to actually Feel JOY in my heart! To BE grateful!! ( hell I kept asking ” what can I possibly be grateful For?” ) I found my asnwer(s) to that question through NOT giving up on my search… Today I am Grateful for the ALL of my EarthWalk thus far. Warts and all. So… {{{HUGE HIPPIE HUGZ}}} You’ve Got this!!

      • Thank you so very much for such a kind and compassionate response. Especially for the Huge Hippie Hugz 🙂 I so can relate to you when you say it felt you decades to feel joy in your heart… I hope I find myself in that place of joy too… no doubt we have much to be grateful for… from simple basics to be honest… a roof over our head, food on the table… a livelihood… there is just so much misery around us on earth… we are privileged to not have to carry that burden…

  3. Thanks!! You absolutely address So many issues with MI AND Trauma!! Rock On Si-STAR!! Namaste <3

    • Thanks so much for your kind words. So encouraging. Namaste to you too. All the best Erin

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