Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Stress load during childhood affects psychopathology in psychiatric patients

Katja Weber1, Brigitte Rockstroh1*, Jens Borgelt1, Barbara Awiszus1, Tzvetan Popov1, Klaus Hoffmann2, Klaus Schonauer2, Hans Watzl2 and Karl Pröpster2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychology, University of Konstanz, Germany

2 Center for Psychiatry Reichenau, Germany

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BMC Psychiatry 2008, 8:63  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-8-63

Published: 23 July 2008



Childhood stress and trauma have been related to adult psychopathology in different psychiatric disorders. The present study aimed at verifying this relationship for stressful experiences during developmental periods by screening stress load across life in adult psychiatric inpatients with different diagnoses compared to healthy subjects. In addition, a relationship between the amount of adverse experiences and the severity of pathology, which has been described as a 'building block' effect in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), was explored for non-traumatic events in psychiatric disorders other than PTSD.


96 patients with diagnoses of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), schizophrenia, drug addiction, or personality disorders (PD) and 31 subjects without psychiatric diagnosis were screened for adverse experiences in childhood (before the age of six years), before onset of puberty, and in adulthood using the Early Trauma Inventory and the Posttraumatic Stress Diagnostic Scale. Effects of stress load on psychopathology were examined for affective symptoms, PTSD, and severity of illness by regression analyses and comparison of subgroups with high and low stress load.


High stress load in childhood and before puberty, but not in adulthood, was related to negative affect in all participants. In patients, high stress load was related to depressive and posttraumatic symptoms, severity of disorder, and the diagnoses of MDD and PD.


Results support the hypothesis of stress-sensitive periods during development, which may interact with genetic and other vulnerability factors in their influence on the progress of psychiatric disorders. A 'dose' effect of stress load on the severity of psychopathology is not restricted to the relationship between traumata and PTSD.