Childhood trauma and auditory verbal hallucinations

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Abstract

Background

Hallucinations have consistently been associated with traumatic experiences during childhood. This association appears strongest between physical and sexual abuse and auditory verbal hallucinations (AVH). It remains unclear whether traumatic experiences mainly colour the content of AVH or whether childhood trauma triggers the vulnerability to experience hallucinations in general. In order to investigate the association between hallucinations, childhood trauma and the emotional content of hallucinations, experienced trauma and phenomenology of AVH were investigated in non-psychotic individuals and in patients with a psychotic disorder who hear voices.

Method

A total of 127 non-psychotic individuals with frequent AVH, 124 healthy controls and 100 psychotic patients with AVH were assessed for childhood trauma. Prevalence of childhood trauma was compared between groups and the relation between characteristics of voices, especially emotional valence of content, and childhood trauma was investigated.

Results

Both non-psychotic individuals with AVH and patients with a psychotic disorder and AVH experienced more sexual and emotional abuse compared with the healthy controls. No difference in the prevalence of traumatic experiences could be observed between the two groups experiencing AVH. In addition, no type of childhood trauma could distinguish between positive or negative emotional valence of the voices and associated distress. No correlations were found between sexual abuse and emotional abuse and other AVH characteristics.

Conclusions

These results suggest that sexual and emotional trauma during childhood render a person more vulnerable to experience AVH in general, which can be either positive voices without associated distress or negative voices as part of a psychotic disorder.

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