Childhood trauma, including neglect and physical and sexual abuse, is a serious problem in the United States, and it is known that early exposure to trauma significantly increases the risk of psychiatric disorders in adulthood, as well as the risk of substance use disorders and addiction. A child’s physical and emotional experiences play a large role in shaping who he or she becomes later in life, particularly experiences as devastating as abuse or neglect, and understanding the role trauma and substance abuse plays in an individual’s addiction disorder can help improve his or her chances of a successful recovery. If you or a loved one is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol possibly caused by exposure to childhood trauma, contact our substance abuse counselors at Behavioral Rehabilitation Services today.
What is Trauma?
Traumatic events in early life can have any number of long-lasting, adverse consequences, sometimes leading to debilitating mental health disorders or substance use disorders. There are a number of experiences that can constitute trauma in childhood, including physical abuse, sexual assault, serious accidents, the death of a loved one, physical or emotional neglect, separation from a parent or caregiver, domestic violence, a dysfunctional household, or any other event that overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope or changes how he or she perceives his or her place in the world. The reason why understanding and acknowledging that trauma occurred is important, is because numerous studies have reported that trauma in childhood can activate survival-oriented behaviors that lead to substance abuse and addiction.
The most common reasons for trauma and substance abuse to even begin, or for a person to start abusing drugs or alcohol after suffering trauma include the following:
- To escape memories
- To soothe pain
- To stay safe
- To redefine who they are
- To treat themselves the way they feel they deserve
- To create a world they can tolerate
Abusing drugs or alcohol essentially becomes a coping mechanism for those who suffer childhood trauma, allowing them to lie to themselves and others in an effort to avoid facing the painful truth. And while experiencing childhood trauma doesn’t automatically guarantee that someone will develop a substance use disorder, trauma is a major underlying source of addiction-related behavior, including drug addiction, alcoholism and eating disorders.
Why Are Some People Prone to Addiction?
There is extensive research highlighting the myriad lasting effects of childhood trauma and substance abuse, and as one study states, “exposure to traumatic experiences, especially those occurring in childhood, has been linked to substance use disorders (SUDs), including abuse and dependence.” In one report involving more than 500 participants from Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, researchers found high rates of lifetime dependence on various substances among the highly-traumatized population. The researchers also found a strong connection between the level of substance abuse, particularly cocaine, and levels of childhood physical, sexual and emotional abuse, as well as current post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
It’s not only young children who are prone to addiction later in life because of trauma. In a national survey of adolescents from 2003, teens who had suffered physical or sexual abuse were three times more likely to report past or current substance abuse than those without a history of trauma, and in surveys of adolescents receiving treatment for substance use disorders, more than 70% had a history of trauma. Additionally, evidence has shown that the link between trauma and substance abuse is particularly strong among adolescents with PTSD, indicating that up to 59% of young people with PTSD develop substance abuse problems.
The Grady Memorial Hospital study also found evidence suggesting that gender may play a role in the connection between trauma and substance abuse. In women, there was a significant connection between sexual abuse and lifetime cocaine and marijuana exposure, and physical abuse in men was strongly linked to current cocaine and lifetime/current heroin use, while in women, it was linked to lifetime marijuana and cocaine use. Emotional abuse in men, on the other hand, was associated with current heroin exposure, while in women, it was tied to heavier lifetime cocaine use.
Profile of an Addict
There are many reasons why there is such a strong correlation between childhood trauma and substance abuse, and the best way to understand this correlation is to understand how heavily certain experiences, positive and negative, influence the development of the brain. For example, there is ample evidence suggesting that childhood trauma compromises neural function and structure, which increases the risk of cognitive defects and mental health disorders later in life, including major depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse. Studies have also shown that maltreatment in childhood can cause extremely high levels of stress that impede the normal development of the brain, and suggested that prolonged exposure to such stress may initiate certain physiological responses that can cause disruptions in the brain that make childhood trauma victims particularly prone to addiction.
In addition to changes in the structure and function of the brain, there are other ways childhood trauma can lead to addiction in adulthood. One possibility is that children and adolescents become addicted to drugs or alcohol because of attempts to self-medicate or to relieve anxiety and any residual effects of being victimized at a young age. Children also have a more limited ability to process traumatic experiences than adults, which makes the effect of trauma more likely to linger, eventually turning into a substance use disorder later in life. Additionally, if the adult to whom a child looks for advice and guidance is the source of the abuse or neglect, the lack of family support may cause the child to turn to drugs or alcohol, as may the substance abuse of another family member the child looks up to or considers a role model.
How Treatment for Trauma and Substance Abuse Can Help
In light of the strong connection between childhood trauma and substance abuse, knowing when an individual has suffered physical, emotional or psychological abuse is imperative, so treatment can be tailored to the unique needs of the individual, especially in instances where there are no other indicators of addiction. Substance abuse and other post-trauma related behaviors are often driven by fear, and effective addiction treatment is centered around resolving that sense of fear, which means treating not just the addiction itself, but the underlying causes of the addiction. Substance abuse treatment is essentially geared towards helping recovering addicts replace their unhealthy coping mechanisms (alcoholism, drug abuse) with healthy coping mechanisms (meditation, exercise, talking it out) to improve their chances of lasting recovery.
Contact BRS Today for Help
According to national statistics, approximately two-thirds of all addicts have previously suffered some type of physical or sexual trauma in childhood. Sadly, substance abuse isn’t a cure for the effects of childhood trauma, and anyone who finds themselves dependent on drugs or alcohol because of something that happened in their past should seek treatment immediately from a professional rehabilitation facility. If you or a loved one is facing an addiction disorder, contact our addiction recovery experts at Behavioral Rehabilitation Services today. With the help of a professional rehab facility, you can overcome your addiction, identify and address the consequences of your childhood trauma and substance abuse, and start fresh as a happy and healthy member of society.