The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction as an Adult

Trauma can affect anyone’s long-term mental health. When it’s experienced by the developing brain, it can have lasting repercussions, especially when it comes to addiction and substance abuse. Experts have found that childhood trauma and addiction are linked. In fact, childhood trauma is one of the top risk factors for developing an addiction later in life.

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What Is Childhood Trauma?

Trauma is different for everyone. It is generally defined as an experience that threatens your safety and well-being. You can experience trauma from a direct interaction with a situation or simply by witnessing it.

Although distressing events happen to everyone, not everyone develops trauma or addiction from those events. Trauma occurs when your body doesn’t process the event in a way that helps you manage the distress. Coping with the emotions, behaviors and memories associated with the event becomes difficult, and you may feel trapped in the troubling feelings.

Adults’ brains are more fully developed than those of children, and they have a wider frame of reference for life experiences. Children lack the understanding and coping skills to process disturbing events. Therefore, the response to traumatic occurrences can become trapped in their subconscious, affecting them throughout their lives in the form of PTSD, other mental illnesses and addiction.

Examples of Childhood Trauma

More than 66% of children have been through at least one traumatic event by the time they’re 16 years old. Some examples of childhood traumas that are linked to addiction include the following:

  • Abuse
  • School violence
  • Bullying
  • Natural disasters
  • Domestic violence
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Assault
  • Neglect
  • Life-threatening injury or illness

Sometimes, the type of trauma is associated with specific outcomes. For example, children who suffered from emotional abuse or neglect are more likely to develop adult depression than those who were victims of physical or sexual abuse. However, every individual processes trauma differently, and any traumatic experience increases the risk of addiction.

How Childhood Trauma Leads to Addiction

Approximately 70% of adolescents in addiction treatment programs have a history of childhood trauma. There is also a strong link between post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, substance abuse disorder and addiction.

When people experience traumas at a young age, they’re bombarded with distress and suffering as their stress response is still developing. Intense or repeated exposure to trauma creates a dysregulated biological stress response.

Therefore, as these people get older, they have a limited ability to cope with other adverse events in their lives. They may not be able to self-regulate in the same way as they would if they hadn’t experienced trauma. This leads many people with PTSD or childhood trauma to self-medicate through substance abuse and develop an addiction.

Find an Inpatient Rehab Program Now

We are here to help you through every aspect of recovery. Call our admissions team to find the best for long-term recovery.

(866) 287-2877

Emotional Regulation, Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Infants can only use their emotions to communicate. Their cries may not tell adults what the infant needs, but they alert caregivers that the infant needs some type of care. A nurturing caregiver responds by providing care and soothing the baby.

As babies transition to toddlerhood, they have learned how to use their emotions to communicate. They may throw tantrums when they feel scared or angry because they can’t name or rationalize their emotions.

Through experience, youngsters pick up emotional regulation skills. When they’re raised in a healthy environment, kids are taught how to name their emotions and process big feelings.

But many children don’t grow up with healthy emotional role models. Low emotional intelligence combined with PTSD can make it difficult to handle the related emotional aftereffects, like terror, nightmares, triggers, rage, panic, anxiety and hopelessness.

Expressing your emotions in a safe and healthy way is an essential part of preventing and managing addiction. But that’s not always possible or encouraged in young people with PTSD.

These individuals may turn to substance abuse and addiction to numb powerful emotions, reduce anxiety, attempt to erase their memories, and function without distress. As the drugs take over for dysregulated neurochemicals, these people develop a dependence. Dependence can quickly turn into addiction.

Symptoms of Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Children who have experienced trauma may have the following symptoms:

  • Withdrawn demeanor
  • Tantrums
  • Self-harm
  • Anxiety
  • Guilt or shame
  • Cognitive problems
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Anger issues
  • Interpersonal problems

These symptoms affect their well-being and make it even harder for them to function. An isolated child may crave stability and affection but not know how to access it. A student with PTSD-related anger issues may get in trouble at school for their behavioral problems. Someone with guilt or shame may neglect their needs in an effort to please others.

As they get older, these children may seek out toxic influences to fill the gaps in their lives. They may be vulnerable to peer pressure, engage in reckless behavior or experiment with recreational substance abuse. If these activities help them to fulfill their unmet needs, their developing brain will tell them to keep doing them, creating a pathway for addiction.

But the symptoms of childhood trauma and addiction often overlap. If you have a loved one who is exhibiting these symptoms, encourage them to talk to a mental health professional that is experienced with PTSD, childhood trauma and addiction.

As a parent or caregiver of a child who expresses these symptoms, it’s not essential to know if they’re using drugs before getting them help. Find a supportive professional to whom the child will feel comfortable opening up. Even if PTSD has not yet led to substance abuse, an addiction-informed counselor can help mitigate the risks of developing an addiction.

Treating Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Because trauma is often the root of addiction, it’s crucial to address it during treatment. An addiction treatment provider that offers dual diagnosis care for PTSD and addiction will use methods that help you heal on all levels.

At Burning Tree Programs, we treat substance abuse, addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. We tailor integrated treatment plans to each individual so that we can address all of their needs. Our long-term care model is particularly effective in helping you achieve lasting relief from your PTSD symptoms, heal from your trauma and release your addiction for good.

As you learn how to move through past and future trauma, you’ll also develop resilience. You’ll incorporate coping methods that reduce your reliance on chemicals. With this holistic approach, you can put an end to your substance abuse and addiction.


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