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Does Childhood Trauma Increase the Risk of Addiction?

Childhood trauma is a term used to describe a violent, dangerous, scary, or life-threatening event that an individual may experience from ages 0-18. Other events that leave a child feeling alone, scared, or vulnerable can also be described as childhood trauma. These events are called Adverse Childhood Experiences. Childhood trauma does not necessarily have to happen to a child – if they witness a horrific event or hear about a horrific event, it could lead to childhood trauma. It is important to note that not all children react to trauma the same, and what may have a substantial impact on one child may not have an effect at all on another. It all comes down to the individual child and how they react to stimuli. Childhood trauma comes in many forms. Keeping in mind that not all children experience trauma the same way, there may be life events that seem minor to an adult that significantly impacts a child. Some of the common life events that can form childhood trauma include:

  • Bullying
  • Abuse
  • Neglect
  • Sexual Assult
  • Violent Crime
  • Accidents
  • Witnessing a violent event such as a shooting
  • Drug abuse in the household
  • Domestic Abuse
  • Poverty
  • Racism
  • Parental Divorce
  • Death of a parent
  • Death of a peer
  • Illness of the child or a close family member
  • Illness of a peer
  • Natural Disasters
  • Homelessness

These events are just a few in the never-ending list of things that may cause or lead to childhood trauma. While these are all significant happenings, sometimes, childhood trauma can stem from less violent happenings, such as abruptly moving schools or urinating their pants at school. Childhood trauma comes in all shapes and sizes, and its impact on a child’s developing brain is significant.

Childhood Trauma and the Brain

During childhood, every interaction and experience helps the brain develop neuron connections, which help us form our lives. Each connection is an integral part of how we function, both in childhood and adulthood. When a traumatic event occurs, it can alter how our brains function. In looking at how childhood trauma affects the brain and brain development, scientists have linked an increase in the body’s biological stress response. This stress response can become dysregulated, causing changes in the development of the brain.

Experiencing trauma during development along with dysregulation of biological stress systems can adversely impact childhood brain development. (nih.gov)

Childhood trauma has been shown to impact the way the brain and body react to stress in general. These dysregulations impact how the brain works as an adult, as well. Dysregulation and chemical imbalances due to childhood trauma can cause an array of issues from childhood into adulthood. Sometimes, adults may not be aware that habits or issues resulting from childhood trauma. As an adult, one may experience negative symptoms that indicate they experienced childhood trauma.

Signs and Symptoms in Adulthood Indicating Childhood Trauma

Knowing that you may be experiencing effects from childhood trauma can be beneficial in receiving the proper diagnosis and treatment. Often, when childhood trauma occurs at a very young age, or an individual does not realize childhood trauma, they may not understand the symptoms they are experiencing in adulthood. This is called repression. If you are experiencing any of the following, reach out to your primary care physician or a licensed therapist for guidance.

  • Extreme emotional shifts
  • Strong, unexplainable reactions to people or places
  • Attachment issues
  • High levels of anxiety
  • Frequent immature outbursts
  • Unnatural responses to normal stress
  • Sudden phobias
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Relationship issues
  • Self-destructive behaviors
  • Trust issues

As always, this list is simply a generalization of possible symptoms of childhood trauma in adulthood. There may be other symptoms as well. For example, one of the bigger issues in adulthood due to childhood trauma is addiction. This falls under self-destructive behaviors.

The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction

In individuals with childhood trauma, the dysregulated stress response can cause undue and excessive stress levels. An individual with childhood trauma (or adverse childhood events: ACEs) may look to substance use to cope with these stress levels. Substance abuse is also a means of bringing an individual momentary euphoria, an escape from the sadness or anger often associated with childhood trauma. However, it can also be a means of avoidance. Research provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that:

  • ACEs are associated with younger age of opioid initiation, injection drug use, and the likelihood of experiencing an overdose.
  • A recent CDC study examined the association between experiencing ACEs and recent opioid misuse. Study findings showed that the odds of opioid misuse increased as the number of adverse childhood experiences increased. In addition, students experiencing five or more ACEs were 15 times more likely to report opioid misuse than those experiencing no ACEs.
  • Losing a loved one to overdose or suicide during childhood is an ACE that can increase the risk of overdose or suicide.
  • Experiencing trauma before age 18 is associated with increased odds of opioid misuse; the odds of opioid misuse are approximately three times higher among adults with four or more different experiences of trauma. (cdc.gov)

While individuals with childhood trauma are more likely to experience substance abuse and addiction, the exact reasons for this link differ from individual to individual. The more childhood trauma, the higher the likelihood of addiction. There is a clear link between childhood trauma and addiction. From escaping PTSD to coping with emotions, back to changes in brain development, there is a broad range of reasons why one may use substances after experiencing childhood trauma. The most important thing in all of this information is help available for both addictions and healing from childhood trauma.

Seeking Help for Childhood Trauma and Addiction

When an individual presents with childhood trauma and substance use disorder, it is known as a co-occurring disorder or dual diagnosis. Here at Evoke Wellness MA, we offer treatment specifically for dual diagnosis. Receiving integrated treatment is essential for recovery. Our dual diagnosis program uses evidence-based forms of therapy, one-on-one counseling, group counseling, and advanced addiction treatment methods that are proven to help individuals with co-occurring disorders. Our staff of highly trained, compassionate medical professionals is here to help you recover. We know that seeking help is not always easy; let us help you take the first steps on your recovery journey. Contact Evoke Massachusetts for a solution-focused approach that integrates trauma therapy for those that need it to free themselves of their inner demons.