For those with traumatic histories, escaping or forgetting painful memories from the past can seem like an attractive option.
The link between trauma and addiction
Much scientific literature supports the potent link between trauma and substance abuse.
Researchers report that psychological trauma can result in depersonalization and numbness – in these cases, people are at higher risk of substance abuse and addiction.
Moreover, prolonged stress and trauma can cause the nervous system to become dysregulated. In such instances, people often turn to substances to cope and are generally more vulnerable to addictive behaviours.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
Adverse childhood experiences (or Aces) are traumatic events that occur during childhood. ACEs that occur before age eighteen can have long-term emotional, mental, and physical effects on a person’s health and wellbeing.
Some examples of adverse childhood experiences may include:
- Having a mentally ill parent
- Neglect or abandonment
- Growing up in an environment where substance abuse or alcoholism was the norm
- Experiencing emotional or physical abuse
- Witnessing intimate partner violence (domestic violence) as a child
- Parental divorce or separation
- Losing a family member to suicide
Trauma and addiction
Research conducted over two decades presents a vital link between ACE scores and addiction.
For example, a study conducted by Dube and colleagues (2002) examined the ACE scores of participants and found that individuals who endure four or more adverse childhood experiences are up to three times more likely to experience alcohol dependency in adulthood (Dube et al., 2002).
Other studies showed that people with three or more ACEs are three times more likely to develop behavioural addictions such as gambling issues.
The higher the ACE score, the more prone people are to addiction.
Perhaps one of the most notable studies on the link between trauma and addiction was by Felitti and colleagues. They examined the impact of childhood traumatic experiences on people below the age of eighteen.
The researchers studied people with a history of physical, mental, and sexual abuse (including neglect), those who lived with a caregiver or parent with a mental illness, and those who witnessed domestic violence growing up.
The study concluded that the more ACEs a person endorsed as a child, the more at risk they are of alcohol and drug use in adulthood (Felittle et al., 1998).
Signs of trauma
People who have experienced profound trauma in childhood may experience various symptoms that they may or may not assign to their past.
Such symptoms may include:
- Prolonged irritability or agitation
- Dramatic mood swings or shifts
- Ongoing nervousness, fear, or anxiety
- Excessive or inappropriate displays of emotions
- Avoiding any reminders of the traumatic event
- Eating disorders
- Lack of self-belief and confidence
- Relationship problems
- Problems relating to other people such as friends, family members, and those you work with
People who endure a traumatic experience or event in childhood are at significant risk of developing an addiction to alcohol and drugs.
The connection between childhood trauma and addiction
Emotional trauma can create myriad issues for the person who has sustained these challenging experiences – trauma can create various mental health problems, including PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
To cope with the harmful effects of a traumatic experience, a person may self-medicate with excessive drug-taking or drinking.
Some research literature showed that people who sustained traumatic experiences in childhood are up to five times more likely to suffer from alcoholism in adulthood.
If we look at how prevalent addiction is within the global population, we might get some idea of how rife substance abuse issues are today.
For example, worrying statistics on drug and alcohol use report the following:
- Marijuana is smoked by over a billion people worldwide
- Over 240 million people abuse alcohol
- Over 15 million people use heroin or other injectable drugs
- Illegal drugs, in general, are consumed globally by over 208 million people
Experts report that trauma-induced addiction is a genuine issue for many trauma survivors.
For example, reports show that of all the people who have experienced a traumatic event, such as an assault, loss of a loved one, physical injury, etc., 25% of them will likely develop problems with substance addiction.
Moreover, substance use disorders affect around 40% of people with PTSD.
We all have different resiliency levels; for example, a traumatic experience that may disturb one person may not necessarily perturb another.
There are various factors in how each of us copes with stress and trauma; genetics, personality characteristics, background, and other variables all play a role in how we deal with life’s challenges.
However, for children, the process of “dealing” works differently.
A child cannot defend themselves against an attacker or escape witnessing someone they love getting abused, they are helpless to stop the trauma, and as a result, children’s brains often shut down, resulting in depersonalisation or dissociation.
Scientific literature shows that trauma can change the brain’s structure – especially in children who have endured chronic traumatic experiences.
The brain’s plasticity
When our brains are in the developmental phase, they are relatively adaptable – and as we mature, the brain proliferates. As a result, the brain can adapt to change easily and absorb new information quickly at this stage.
However, as excellent as this is, experts explain that in traumatized children, the brain’s plasticity can be detrimental, since these influential, ready-to-adapt- brains become hardwired to adapt to hostile environments, marked by anxiety and fear.
Essentially, negativity becomes accepted more readily, and for such traumatized children, poor treatment is the “norm.”
The plasticity of the brain in a young traumatized child can work against them, hardwiring them to be more tolerant of bad behaviour, cruel treatment, and unhealthy environments than non-traumatized children.
Trauma changes the brain.
Moreover, trauma can physically change the brain. Scientists have long examined the effects of trauma on the brain in young children.
The researchers found that the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and processing changes in size in children who have experienced trauma.
Scientists discovered that the brain’s size, shape, and inner brain connections are all impacted by chronic stress or abuse in childhood.
How does all this affect children?
Other studies showed that out of the children who endured traumatic experiences before the age of 13, 50% were more likely to engage in substance abuse and suffer from depression or other mental disorders.
Trauma and addiction
Broadly, most (if not all) of the literature denotes that addiction results from chronic childhood trauma – namely, that addiction is a response to childhood trauma. Unfortunately, this problem doesn’t seem to be getting any better.
The conclusion of most of the research papers appears to suggest that the more ACE scores a person has, the more likely they are to use drugs and alcohol, self-medicate, or have physical or mental health problems.
A negatively impacted brain is more prone to using drugs, alcohol, overeating, and smoking due to trauma, meaning that the chances of a child growing up to be an addict is far more likely in those with adverse childhood experiences.
The connection between trauma and addiction is inarguable; the organic need for traumatized individuals to self-soothe, seek comfort and relief, or feel normal is understandable, especially when one’s basic needs were not met in childhood.
When a person grows up in an unstable, unpredictable, or neglectful environment, an unhealthy response such as developing an addiction or engaging in substance abuse is their way of dealing, an attempt to feel normal, happy, or to “fit in” with peers.
Healthy coping mechanisms
If young children are not encouraged to adopt healthy coping mechanisms, they will likely struggle with adverse emotions and stress management abilities.
Children who grow up in traumatic environments may suffer from low self-esteem, and this alone can be the foundation for seeking love, support, and normalization in social settings.
Drugs, alcohol, and other addictive behaviours can be the outlet for all social interactions for childhood trauma survivors, a way to seek acceptance as a substitute for the safety and nurturing they did not receive as children.
Since trauma is often the root cause of addiction, mental health experts and addiction specialists must adopt a trauma-informed approach and offer clients dual-diagnosis treatment.
A dual-diagnostic approach addresses the addiction symptoms and the trauma behind substance abuse.
Many people with addictions also have concurrent disorders – for example, a person with a drug or alcohol use disorder may be diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder.
Treatment approaches must address such conditions concurrently, allowing trauma survivors and therapists to unpack the root cause of addiction while treating the symptoms.
If you think you may have any of the trauma symptoms mentioned in this article – perhaps it’s time you reach out to a specialist who can help.
We specialize in treating various addictions and mental health disorders at Camino Recovery. Our team is always on hand to lend a listening ear.
Contact the team today to begin your healing transformation.
- Why Trauma Can Lead to Addiction: Psychology Today; Amanda L. Giordano PhD., LPC
- What Are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?: VeryWell Mind, Wendy Wisner, February 24th, 2022
- Links Between Trauma, PTSD, and Dissociative Disorders: Matthew Tull Ph.D., June 3rd, 2020