The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction

There is a clear link between childhood trauma and alcohol and drug addiction. Traumatic events children experience often follow them as they mature into adults, creating mental health issues that may cause them to use alcohol or drugs as a way to self-medicate. According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, more than one-third of adolescents with reports of neglect or abuse will have a drug or alcohol addiction by the time they are 18 years old. 

What is Childhood Trauma?

Trauma results from one or more events that are physically or emotionally harmful to the child. The child is often left feeling fearful, confused, powerless, and betrayed. Their trust of parental or authority figures may be broken. When the child does not have the capacity or resources to process that event, they may develop a trauma disorder.

There are many causes of childhood trauma, such as child abuse in any form, including physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. Emotional or physical neglect, losing a parent or loved one, being bullied, or having a serious illness are other causes of childhood trauma. Being involved in or witnessing a serious accident, acts of war, domestic violence, natural disasters, community violence, or school violence are other events that cause childhood trauma.

Additional experiences that cause trauma in children include:

  • Having a parent who used drugs in the home 
  • Having a mentally ill parent in the home
  • Having a parent in jail or prison
  • Criminal behavior in the living environment                               

The Effects of Childhood Trauma on the Brain

Childhood trauma can significantly impact the developing brain, increasing the risk of addiction in adulthood. Brain Facts explains that a child’s brain is physically damaged by trauma, which triggers toxic stress. When toxic stress is strong, prolonged, and frequent, it rewires and changes several areas of the brain through neuroplasticity. The changes alter the activity of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and anterior cingulate cortex, affecting the person’s ability to control and regulate their emotions.

How Does Childhood Trauma Affect the Adult Brain?

There are many ways that childhood trauma affects the adult brain. Here are several of them. 

  • When the amygdala is chronically activated, the chance of developing co-occurring mental health disorders and substance use disorders increases. 
  • When the amygdala is repeatedly overstimulated by repeated traumatic experiences, it leads the person to constantly be in a state of fear, anxiety, and hypervigilance.
  • Childhood trauma can trigger the brain’s fight-or-flight response when there is no threat.
  • When the fight-or-flight response is triggered in non-threatening situations, the person is in a state of hyperarousal, which includes an exaggerated startle response, insomnia, and irritability.
  • A common response to childhood trauma in adulthood is avoidance. A person may avoid places, events, things, or situations that remind them of the traumatic event, possibly interfering with their ability to carry out day-to-day activities. 
  • Negative self-talk and a negative self-image often result from childhood trauma, as the individual has a poor view of themself. 

Why Does Trauma Often Lead to Addiction?

People who have experienced childhood trauma often drink alcohol or use drugs to self-medicate. It is their way of coping with the physical and emotional pain their childhood traumatic experiences caused. The relief they feel from using drugs or drinking alcohol is only temporary. As they continue trying to find relief, their substance use quickly turns into addiction, harming the person’s physical and mental health. Over time, substance use disorders worsen the effects of trauma and intensify trauma-related disorder symptoms.

Statistics of Childhood Trauma and Addiction

From the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:

  • Over 70 percent of adolescents receiving drug or alcohol addiction treatment experienced childhood trauma.
  • One in four children and adolescents have at least one traumatic experience before they are 16.
  • If a teen experiences physical or sexual abuse or assault, they are three times more likely to use alcohol or drugs. 
  • A person who experiences trauma will begin using drugs or alcohol 76 percent of the time.
  • In the United States, more than 679,000 children experience neglect or abuse each year.

From the American Society for the Positive Care of Children:

  • One-third to two-thirds of abuse cases involve some degree of substance use disorder.
  • If parents abuse drugs or alcohol, children are four times more likely to be neglected and three times more likely to be abused.
  • Two-thirds of the people in addiction treatment were neglected or abused as children.
  • By their 18th birthday, one-third of adolescents with a neglect or abuse report will have an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
  • Approximately 80 percent of people aged 21 who were abused have one or more psychological disorders.

Co-Occurring Disorders

When an individual has a drug or alcohol addiction resulting from trauma, it is called a co-occurring disorder. The individual needs specialized treatment. Both the addiction and the trauma must be addressed. With the right help, the individual can process the old trauma and have a better chance of achieving long-term sobriety.

Help is Available

If you or a loved one is struggling with an alcohol or drug addiction and have symptoms of unresolved trauma or PTSD, we can help. At English Mountain Recovery, located in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, our highly skilled staff of caring professionals will help you work through your past trauma and guide you to recovery. It is time to take the first step. Contact us today.