Link Between Childhood Sexual Abuse and Auditory Hallucinations

There are a number of different experiences that can cause a child to develop maladaptive coping tendencies. Children who are emotionally or physically abused, neglected, or raised in extremely stressful environments may internalize their emotions. Likewise, children who have experienced sexual abuse may dissociate as a way of defending themselves from the psychological harm that results from sexual abuse. Trauma suffered in childhood increases the risk for dissociative behaviors. Auditory hallucinations are one form of dissociation and are evident in individuals with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. To better understand how childhood trauma, dissociation, and hallucinations are related, F. Varese of the School of Psychology at Bangor University in the United Kingdom recently led a study comparing the dissociative behaviors, childhood traumas, and cognitive discrimination of 45 individuals with schizophrenia and 20 participants with no prior hallucination history.

Because dissociation is recognized as a pathway for hallucinations and an outcome of childhoodtrauma, Varese sought to determine if the frequency and type of trauma influenced hallucinations and the capacity to determine real and imagined events in the participants. Using a signal detection performance task (SDT), Varese found that the participants with a history of childhood sexual abuse were the most likely to experience dissociative behaviors that resulted in hallucinations. The frequency of abuse was directly related to the level of dissociation, with the most severely abused participants exhibiting the highest levels of hallucinations. The findings also showed that the participants with infrequent hallucinations had lower levels of abuse and dissociation than those who experienced more hallucinations. Varese believes that further research is needed to determine if adult stress and trauma rather than childhood trauma contributed to the intermittent hallucinations in the participants with sporadic dissociative behaviors. In sum, these results suggest that a better comprehension of the type of abuse suffered may be the key to developing effective treatment strategies for individuals who experience hallucinations. Varese added, “Future research should examine whether other cognitive processes associated with both dissociative states and hallucinations (e.g., deficits in cognitive inhibition) may explain the relationship between dissociation and hallucinatory experiences.”

Varese, F., Barkus, E., Bentall, R. P. (2012). Dissociation mediates the relationship between childhood trauma and hallucination-proneness. Psychological Medicine, 42.5, 1025-1036.

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  • kelvin

    May 7th, 2012 at 12:19 PM

    I am sure that just to get through that kind of trauma children will do anything that they can to disconnect from reality and to find some kind of alternative that will allow them to think about it as little as possible.The bad thing is that when they are an adult, eventually all of that running away from the situation will catch up with them.

  • Sarah E. Olson

    May 7th, 2012 at 12:24 PM

    I’m all for research, but as someone diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder I cringe at the way your post casually connects dissociation with schizophrenia, as if it’s some kind of linear pathway. (Childhood sexual abuse –> dissociation –> auditory hallucinations –> schizophrenia.)

    You said: “Auditory hallucinations are one form of dissociation and are evident in individuals with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.” What you left out — and it’s an important distinction to anyone dealing with these symptoms — is that auditory hallucinations are also evident in people who are in no way schizophrenic, i.e., people with dissociative disorders.


  • gabriel

    May 7th, 2012 at 1:40 PM

    It is impossible to know how one will react when they have lived thru something as terrible as childhood sexual abuse.
    There will be those who are willing to talk about the abuse while there are others who want to supress it and try to act as if none of it ever happened.
    The best thing that we can do is to try to protect them from doing harm to themselves and try to get them to talk in a way that is healthy and allows them to move forward.

  • Ruth

    May 7th, 2012 at 3:15 PM

    Dear Sarah, You are so right, we need to be very careful of our wording and it’s accuracy when talking or associating symptoms to various disorders of the DSM. Auditory and even visual hallucinations can be had via 293.0 Delirium Due to a General Medical Condition; esp when delirium has not been diagnosed. It’s a symptom well known to Nurses of the elderly who tend to get difficult to diagnose Urinary Tract Infections. If it weren’t for a determined Nurse, my Mother would have been packed off to a nursing home as ‘demented’!
    Always double check if something seems “out there”.

  • M.Hall

    May 7th, 2012 at 11:33 PM

    Its not enough to just look at childhood abuse. What also needs to be taken note of is whether any counseling was given after the childhood abuse, how the child grew up(the environment, whether there was any repetition of the abuse, the support system the child had) etcetera.

    Only then can we come to a conclusion about how much of an effect childhood trauma has in developing auditory hallucinations later on.Without that anything that we obtain will not have a solid basis.

  • Laina S

    May 8th, 2012 at 4:15 AM

    always thought schizophrenia was an internal conflict, not influenced by external factors- I am sure that abuse could feed it but I would not think cause it

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