While people get addicted to substances for a number of reasons, a lot of them are trying to use substances as a means of coping and that I believe is something many forget. Something I have noticed a lot of people who become addicts have in common is that many of them face some kind of childhood trauma.
There is a clear relationship or link between childhood trauma and susceptibility to addiction and while it isn’t something a lot of people want to acknowledge, there is no denying it on a real level. You see, when we are children and our brains are still growing, maturing, and developing the things we experience influence us and in some cases can do serious damage. As children, our brains are affected by the things we go through which if we’re going through negative things can be a terrible thing to have to come to understand in the end.
While a number of studies attribute the relationship between childhood trauma and addiction to disruptions in the brain structure caused by the stress of trauma, there have also been a number of other, simpler explanations proposed. In the Adverse Childhood Experiences study conducted with 17,000 Kaiser Permanente patients, many different stress-inducing experiences during childhood have been linked to various forms of substance abuse and impulse control disorders.4
Many associate childhood trauma with child abuse, but other stress-inducing and traumatic experiences linked to an elevated vulnerability to addiction include neglect, the loss of a parent, witnessing domestic or other physical violence, and having a family member who suffers from a mental illness.
Those who had experienced such things during childhood have shown an increased tendency to become dependent on alcohol and drugs. They may also develop behavioral addictions such as compulsive eating and compulsive sexual behavior.
In most cases, experiences that are extremely traumatic for children would be much less traumatic for adults. But there are a couple of key reasons why such occurrences have a more significant and lasting effect on children.5 It’s important to remember that children are limited in their ability to make contextual inferences that would likely allow them to process these experiences more effectively. Lacking a frame of reference, it’s difficult to make sense of traumatic experiences, making the effects of trauma more likely to linger.
Additionally, children usually rely on their loved ones for support during times of difficulty. But when a child’s loved ones are the source of abuse, neglect, or other trauma during these experiences, family support is not an option. In many cases, a victim of childhood abuse begins abusing alcohol or drugs as a means of self-medicating, hoping to alleviate the residual effects of being victimized at a young age.
On the other hand, it’s also common for substance abuse behavior in adulthood to be modeled after a loved one’s substance abuse behavior that had been witnessed during childhood.6 In fact, the tendency to self-medicate can be similarly modeled and passed along.
While those who become addicts don’t just go into things wanting to become addicts, they just find a substance or act in general that makes them feel better and then once all is said and done end up allowing things to grow to a point where just putting the substance down isn’t possible without some serious help and effort. Recovery isn’t easy and until those things within are worked on as well, the use of substances and other things of the sort can’t be addressed on the level they might need to be.
The connections between childhood trauma and disorders such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder have been firmly established for decades. Today, however, there is increasing awareness of the fact that childhood trauma causes addiction as well, creating a fuller picture of the etiology of substance abuse. In some ways, these links appear obvious. As Raychelle Cassada, author of The Anger Workbook for Teens, writes, “Substance use is often used as a means to cope with the painful traumatic memories.” Substance use may also help you deal with the feelings of isolation, depression, and low self-worth that so often result from childhood trauma, making drugs and alcohol highly attractive even at dangerous levels.
Indeed, research has found that those who have experienced childhood abuse are 1.5 times more likely to use illicit drugs each year compared to adults who have not experienced childhood abuse. Some studies suggest the number is even higher and increases with the severity of abuse. For example, a study on “highly traumatized” individuals found that a full 39% of participants reported dependence on alcohol and 34.1% reported dependence on cocaine. Survivors of childhood abuse are also more likely to start using earlier than their non-abused peers; one study found that childhood sexual abuse survivors begin using a full year before individuals who have not experienced sexual abuse. The same study found that rates of drug and alcohol use amongst young people who are survivors of childhood trauma are rising while rates of use in the general young population are declining. These results are part of a growing body of literature demonstrating important links between childhood trauma and addiction, helping us better understand the vulnerabilities of survivors.
When we as children go through trauma on any scale in any variety we become overwhelmed with feelings of sadness, depression, loneliness, anger, or other things of the sort and dealing with those feelings as we grow up isn’t easy. For more information on all of this please check out the video below. While there is hope for addicts, dealing with the addiction alone isn’t going to solve their problems.