Addiction is unfortunately extremely prevalent in the United States. More than 20 million Americans are estimated to suffer from the disorder, many of whom never seek treatment. It’s a well-known fact that addiction can be passed down from generation to generation. But what about other factors, such as a traumatic event? Is there a link between childhood trauma and addiction?

As scientists continue to study substance abuse, they are finding that environmental factors, such as trauma, can play as much of a role as genetics. Unfortunately, children who suffer from a disturbing experience are much more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol as adults.

People who suffer from traumatic events, including abuse, mentally ill or addicted parents, domestic violence or neglect are much more likely to have mental health problems and self-medicate, increasing the likelihood of developing substance abuse problems.

What is Trauma?

Psychological trauma damages the mind as a result of experiencing a distressing event. Often, trauma occurs when the amount of stress is greater than the individual’s ability to cope with the emotions from that experience. Children who suffer are even more vulnerable than adults because their brains aren’t equipped to deal with emotional distress in a healthy manner.

Abuse, neglect, bullying, and sexual assault are common causes of childhood trauma. Sadly, there is ample evidence suggesting that childhood traumatic experiences are linked to addiction in adulthood. Furthermore, some studies indicate that the greater the distress in childhood, the greater the odds of adult addiction.

Childhood Trauma and Addiction

Sadly, more than a quarter of patients who survive traumatic experiences later develop unhealthy relationships with substances. Nearly half of PTSD patients suffer from an addiction disorder.

Children who have experienced trauma are more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression, increasing the likelihood that they will abuse drugs or alcohol as adults. Children who have had adverse events in their lives, learn to self-medicate from an early age. Coping mechanisms in childhood can easily lead to dangerous habits in adulthood, such as alcohol, drugs or prescription medicine. They are also more likely to be smokers and compulsive eaters, as adults.

trauma and substance abuse

Experiences in kids’ early years shape their development and program their brains for the rest of their lives. While calm and positive experiences help children thrive as adults, chaotic or traumatic events can predispose them to anxiety and depression. When children experience emotional distress, it changes their brains permanently. Functions affected include memory, learning, cortisol, and emotional regulation.

Additionally, abusing drugs or alcohol as a young person (any time before the mid-twenties) increases the risk of addiction later in life. This is due to their influence on the brain before it’s fully developed. Research from studies, including the National Survey of Adolescents, indicates that more than 70 percent of surveyed teens seeking substance abuse treatment had been abused as children. Nearly 60 percent of kids who have experienced trauma, battle substance abuse issues.

Specialized Recovery for Victims of Childhood Trauma

No matter what causes addiction, it’s important to treat it with empathy and compassion. This is especially true for adults who suffer from addiction due to a damaging childhood. Any form of “tough love” treatment may resurface the feelings of abandonment, betrayal, and loss of control caused by the traumatic event.

It’s extremely important to seek help for substance abuse issues, stemming from childhood. Using drugs and alcohol to cope is extremely risky and exacerbates the issue by leading to problems with family, career, and health. Seeking guidance will help the patient develop healthy coping mechanisms, as well as help in other areas of their life affected by substance abuse.

While there is a good amount of research that supports a link between childhood trauma and substance abuse, it’s important to remember that many things factor into addiction, including family history, mental health and lifestyle habits.

If you, or someone you love, is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please contact one of our counselors for help, today.