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Childhood Trauma And Bipolar Disorder


This weekend Dublin will be hosting its first Mental Health and Wellbeing Fair. The idea is to educate people on general issues concerning mental health and how to cope with a mental health disorder or someone who has one.

Bi-polar is a mental health disorder like depression, schizophrenia, eating disorders and substance abuse. I would like to take a minute to look at research concerning Bipolar. This concerns childhood trauma as a cause.

So, what is bipolar and how would you define it? The word bipolar can be broken up into two words, bi = two, and polar = poles or sides. People with bipolar disorder have severe high and low mood swings (the two opposite poles) and this affects their thinking, behavior, energy and sleeping patterns.

It is sometimes also referred to as manic depression, the disorder causes mania (impulsive or reckless decision making) or turns you into a maniac (hallucinations propelling you to believe you can fly etc.). People with this disorder experience delusions and hallucinations.

Why would someone become bipolar? There are many causes listed, for example stressful life events, self-esteem problems, brain chemistry, drug abuse or genetic inheritance.

Some experts now believe that if you have experienced emotional distress of a serious nature in your childhood, such as sexual or physical abuse, neglect, traumatic events or losing someone very close to you (a parent or carer) the chances that you may develop bipolar, significantly increases.

One of the reasons for this would be that children are emotionally weaker and would find dealing with events like these in their earlier childhoods (especially in children aged 5 years and younger) extremely difficult, and most of the time would not have the capability to deal with them.

This would surface in the child’s later life (maybe when he/she reaches adulthood), reflecting the highs and lows of their childhood anxieties, sadness and fears.

Research proves that bipolar disorder can be put down to genetic risk variants or environmental susceptibility factors (childhood trauma falls under the latter category). Most studies focus on physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional abuse as a possible contributing factor to the development of bipolar disorders.

In France a group of investigators led by Bruno Etain, MD, conducted a case-control study using the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire. For this assessment 206 patients with bipolar were questioned, concentrating the questions on abuse. Another 587 patients with bipolar were then tested to analyze various clinical features.

Once the results were analyzed they found that children who were emotionally abused were more than twice as likely to develop bipolar disorder (odds ratio 2 to 14). They also found that the worse the case of abuse the higher the rate of bipolar disorder.

The questionnaire revealed that suicide was directly linked to emotional and sexual abuse and of those tested, attempted suicide were higher among people with bipolar and who had been abused in their childhoods.

Childhood trauma it was found, also increases the risk of rapid cycling (the episodes of mania someone with bipolar suffers during a year) and affective instability (depressive episodes).

The investigators concluded their study saying: “Our results demonstrate consistent associations between childhood trauma and more severe clinical characteristics in bipolar disorder. Further, they show the importance of including emotional abuse as well as the more frequently investigated sexual abuse when targeting clinical characteristics of bipolar disorder.”

Bipolar is not a life sentence, there are many ways of treating it and recovering from something like a traumatic childhood event. Even though childhood traumas stems, well from your childhood and now that you are an adult it seems as if it happened light years ago, there are tips and therapies you can take aboard to help you recover from trauma.

Tips include: getting exercise; not isolating yourself; regulating  your nervous system; taking care of your health; and seeking professional help, for example from a trauma specialist.

Therapies commonly used in the treatment of emotional and psychological trauma include Somatic Experience, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Cognitive-behavioral therapies.

If you are living with someone who has bipolar disorder you need to be patient and understanding; offer practical support; remember not to pressurize you loved one into talking, but be available if they want to talk; help your loved one to socialize and relax; and don’t take their trauma symptoms personally.

If you are a parent or you want to help a child recover from trauma it is recommended that you communicate openly with the child following a traumatic event.  Let them know it is normal to feel scared or upset and stay positive.

Emotional and psychological symptoms of trauma

Shock, denial, or disbelief
Anger, irritability, mood swings
Guilt, shame, self-blame
Feeling sad or hopeless
Confusion, difficulty concentrating
Anxiety and fear
Withdrawing from Others
Feeling disconnected or numb

Physical symptoms of trauma

Insomnia or nightmares
Being startled easily
Difficulty concentrating
Racing heartbeat
Edginess and agitation
Aches and pains
Muscle tension

The Mental Health and Wellbeing Fair will be taking place at St. Patrick’s University Hospital, James’ Street, D 8 on Saturday the 21st of May 2016 starting at 11 am to 4 pm. The workshops will be free to attend, but you need to register at

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