The role of early life stress in adult psychiatric disorders: a systematic review according to childhood trauma subtypes

J Nerv Ment Dis. 2013 Dec;201(12):1007-20. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0000000000000049.


Early life stress (ELS; sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect) has been the focus of numerous studies. It has been associated with the onset and the severity of psychiatric disorders in adults. The objective of this study was to review the literature on ELS associated with psychiatric disorders in adulthood, seeking to identify whether there are independent effects between subtypes of early stress in triggering psychopathology in adults. We reviewed articles from 2001 to 2011 in four databases (PubMed, SciELO, LILACS, and PsycINFO), with the following key words: child abuse, maltreatment, early life stress, psychiatric disorders, mental disease, and psychopathology. Forty-four articles were selected, and most of these articles demonstrate that the subtypes of ELS are associated with several psychiatric disorders, more specifically: physical abuse, sexual abuse, and unspecified neglect with mood disorders and anxiety disorders; emotional abuse with personality disorders and schizophrenia; and physical neglect with personality disorders. Physical neglect had the weakest association between the subtypes. ELS subtypes in childhood and adolescence can predict the development of psychopathology in adults. Scientific evidence shows that ELS triggers, aggravates, maintains, and increases the recurrence of psychiatric disorders. These results demonstrate the importance of a deeper understanding about the unique effects of ELS subtypes, especially for mental health professionals.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Adult Survivors of Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Anxiety Disorders / etiology
  • Child
  • Child Abuse / psychology*
  • Child Abuse, Sexual / psychology
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders / etiology*
  • Mood Disorders / etiology
  • Personality Disorders / etiology
  • Schizophrenia / etiology