Exposure to childhood trauma is related to more severe trauma symptoms in new mothers exposed to intimate partner violence


Lead author of the study, graduate student Paty Cintora

By Megan Finnegan, August 12, 2020

Women's exposure to intimate partner violence (IPV), a type of domestic violence, can have profoundly negative consequences on their mental health. Rather than a single event, IPV often occurs over extended periods of time, but few studies have examined how continued exposure effects women's symptoms over time and what factors may explain differences in how women respond these traumatic events. New research published by Dr. Heidemarie Laurent and graduate student Paty Cintora in the Journal of Traumatic Stress reveal that, in conjunction with current levels of IPV, past exposure to childhood trauma is associated with worse symptoms over time.

IPV is a particularly harmful type of trauma in part because the perpetrator is someone trusted. This can result in a host of symptoms associated with posttraumatic stress as well as mood-related problem such as depression and anxiety and sexual problems. Since this type of trauma frequently occurs over multiple instances, it is unclear how much of these symptoms are the result of immediate exposure to violence or the result of damage accrued over previous encounters. This has important implications for IPV screening, since it would inform whether screening should focus on immediate changes to violence exposure or look for longer term patterns of abuse. 

Although IPV has detrimental effects across lifespan, there are critical periods in women's lives in which they are particularly vulnerable. The postpartum period is one such period where the transition to motherhood represents a time of significant life-changes which may magnify existing stressors. Women exposed to IPV are at increased risk for postpartum mental health difficulties including higher levels of postpartum depression. Past childhood maltreatment is also thought to be a risk factor for IPV in women and possibly serve to amplify its detrimental effects on mental health. Although how this interacts with changes in current exposure during this critical time had not been examined.

Paty Cintora and Dr. Laurent tracked women's violence exposure and trauma symptoms over over the course of 18-months following their child's birth to understand how changes in IPV interact with childhood maltreatment and current symptoms. They found, consistent with prior work, that higher levels of exposure to current IPV was associated with more severe trauma symptoms. These symptoms however were amplified when women has a history of abuse in childhood, leading to IPV exposure showing more severe effects in these women. As exposure to trauma changed over time, so too did women's symptom severity.

The work serves to further refine current understanding of the role of past trauma and current abuse exposure. The observation that women's mental health is responsive to relative shifts in exposure to abusive behaviors indicate the importance of addressing changes exposure in conjunction with screening for current vulnerability.

To read more about this work, visit the Illinois News Bureau.