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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