2019 Guide: The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction in Adulthood
There is a clear and distinct correlation between child trauma and drug and alcohol addiction. The traumatic incidents that we experience in our childhood very easily can, and often do, wind up following us into maturity creating a variety of long-term mental health issues that may causes us to self-medicate through excessive drinking or drug abuse. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that more than a third of adolescents with a report of abuse or neglect will have a substance use disorder before they reach their 18th birthday.1
Data published in TIME Magazine indicates that 55 to 60 percent of all post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) victims end up developing some form of chemical dependency, an assertion backed up by the American Psychological Association (APA). 2,3 In addition, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that 7 to 8 percent of the American population suffers from some level of PTSD. 4 Identifying trauma-related substance abuse triggers is a key element of treatment and fundamental to helping individuals in recovery live a rich and full life as they endeavor to stay clean.
Where Does Trauma Take Root?
The term trauma is defined as an adverse and often malignant emotional reaction to a singular or repetitive event that caused severe physical or psychological harm. It is characterized by a patient’s inability to move past and process the experience without reliving it over and over again. Trauma victims will very often develop serious mental illness for which they turn to drugs and alcohol. Data published in JAMA Psychiatry suggests that more than 30 percent of all PTSD sufferers develop a major depressive disorder, and the Department of Veterans Affairs reports that ten percent of Americans suffer from trauma-related depression each year.5,6
- Rape or sexual assault
- General physical assault
- Domestic or intimate-partner violence
- Extreme verbal and emotional abuse
- Bullying and repeated harassment of any kind
- Terminal illness
- Natural disasters
- Accidents such as car crashes or fire
- Parental neglect
The reality of trauma is that it can come from anywhere and manifest in a variety of physical and psychological symptoms.
Behavioral And Psychological Trauma Symptoms
Individuals who experience childhood trauma may experience a number of short-term and long-term psychological and behavioral symptoms, including but not limited to:
- Prolonged agitation and irritability
- Avoidance of things that remind them of the trauma
- Erratic changes in mood and behavior
- Prolonged and Consistent Fear and Nervousness
- Timidity and lack of confidence
- Constantly reliving the event(s)
- An excessive and often inappropriate display of emotions
Negative Impact On Quality Of Life In Adulthood Due To Childhood Trauma
Trauma symptoms that take root in childhood often have a severely negative impact on quality of life in adulthood, affecting a full range of areas.
Professional Life Problems
Data indicates that lingering effects of childhood trauma can manifest as conflict in the workplace. 7 Trauma experienced in childhood has a direct influence on how sufferers perceive and process adversity, trust and relate to others, handle responsibility, and much more, all factors with which adults are expected to contend in the workplace every day. Inability to process childhood trauma can have a direct impact on professional mobility and quality of life.
Romantic and Social Relationships Issues
Childhood trauma survivors, particularly those who have experienced sexual trauma or any other type of physical or emotional abuse, often have serious intimacy issues that cause create significant obstacles to forming healthy romantic relationships. Data indicates that childhood trauma has a direct impact on how we form general and sexual identity, trust others, develop self-worth, assert our confidence, avoid or embrace destructive relationships, and more.
Eating Disorders – Binge Eating, Bulimia, and Anorexia
Binge eating disorder, bulimia, and anorexia are psychological illnesses often brought about by childhood abuse. According to The New York Center for Eating Disorders, 50% of all patients presenting with eating disorders are victims of childhood assault. For many people with eating disorders, trusting food is safer than trusting people! It never abuses you, ridicules you, dies, or abandons you. It is the only relationship where we get to say where, when, and how much. No other relationship complies with our needs so absolutely.
Food, after all, is the cheapest, most available, legal, socially acceptable mood altering drug on the market. Patients report that even as children they turned to bingeing, purging, or starving as a way to manage unbearable emotions following sexual trauma. The comfort of compulsive overeating, vomiting, laxatives or self-starvation as well as the numbing effects of the “drug” of food can be a short term solution to the pain, grief, and rage of abuse and live on as a coping mechanism in adulthood.
Eating disorder evaluation and treatment should be part of an individualized, comprehensive plan for each patient.
Watch Webinar On Opioids And Early Adversity: Connecting Childhood Trauma And Addiction
One landmark study, known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey, showed definitively how childhood trauma can directly influence the formation of the brain. 9 The study also found that child abuse and other forms of trauma were a leading cause of death among adults through a variety of factors. While trauma treatment has gotten incrementally more intuitive since this study was published, childhood trauma is still linked to a number of fatal factors, including suicide.10
Examples of Childhood Trauma Influencing Drug Addiction
Chemical dependency takes many forms, and many of them are often linked to trauma sustained in developmental years. Whether we develop a crippling alcohol addiction out of a need for social acceptance or any other reason; start smoking marijuana to escape our everyday reality; start shooting heroin or taking painkillers to avoid memories of deep-rooted abuse or anything else.
There are multiple contexts in which a person can experience co-occurring childhood-related PTSD and addiction:
- The NIH, among other agencies, reports that those who sustain childhood trauma are at extremely high risk for developing alcohol addiction.
Multiple data, including a recent global collaborative survey, reveals a direct correlation between childhood trauma and marijuana abuse.11
- Data from the National Conference on Legislatures, as well as many other organizations, points to a close relationship between childhood adversity and the development of opioid dependency.
- A recent study from Florida’s Miller School of Medicine revealed that childhood abuse and other types of developmental trauma can increase the likelihood of meth abuse.12
These increased risks stem from a variety of factors. Some children who crave stability, acceptance, and community in their home lives look for it elsewhere among equally toxic influences and start abusing alcohol or other drugs as a means of gaining that sense of acceptance and solidarity. The chronic nature of substance abuse means that these early behaviors can very easily follow children into adulthood. Other children simply fail to recognize, acknowledge, and effectively process this trauma until it manifests in self-destructive ways like self-harm, substance abuse, or the inability to control their emotions. This is why early intervention is such a critical part of the clinical trauma-treatment process.
Domestic Abuse and Addiction
Domestic abuse is one of the most common forms of childhood trauma and can have a direct impact on the formation of addiction. In a recent study published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from Columbia University found that domestic abuse drastically increases the likelihood of the onset of chemical dependency. 13 Another recent study from Emory University revealed a close relationship between physical and emotional child abuse and the development of drug or alcohol addiction as a result of emotional dysregulation.14 This trauma can either form as a result of direct abuse or having to witness abuse in the home, the latter being a factor with which far too many children are forced to contend.
Sexual Abuse and Addiction
Another tragically common element of childhood trauma includes sexual abuse. Data from the Department of Health and Human Services indicates that almost sixty-thousand children are sexually abused per year in the United States. 15 The Department of Justice’s report “Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics” indicates that 14 percent of all men and 36 percent of all women in prison were abused as children.16
Other data indicates that sexually abused children are less likely to practice safe sex, putting them at greater risk for STDs. They’re also 25 percent more likely to experience teen pregnancy and significantly more likely to develop problems related to drug and alcohol addiction. To compound this unthinkable trauma, 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims know the perpetrator in some way. Nearly 70 percent are abused by a family member.
Physical Abuse and Addiction
Whether it’s through acute one-time physical assault, a prolonged and consistent pathology of bullying, or a lifetime of abuse inside the home, physical abuse is an all-too-common part of the average child’s life. The American Society for the Positive Care of Children reports that more than 18 percent of children who are maltreated experience physical abuse and that nearly half of those of those children die from it.17 The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that two thirds of the people in treatment for drug abuse reported being abused or neglected as children. There are multiple levels of physical abuse that can put children in harm’s way and lead to the development of drug or alcohol addiction later in life.
Emotional Abuse and Addiction
Emotional abuse is a broad term that can describe a range of behaviors, including direct verbal assault, active manipulation, or simple neglect and ignoring of the child. One of the emotional abuse-related behaviors most closely linked to the development of substance abuse is the early exposure to drugs and alcohol from a parent of guardian. Data from the United States Department of Health and Human Services reveals that between 30 and 60 percent of all of child maltreatment cases involve substance use to some degree and that children whose parents abuse drugs or alcohol are three to four times more likely to be abused and neglected, thus perpetuating the cycle.18
Treating Co-Occurring Addiction And Childhood Trauma
Treatment for childhood trauma-related addiction must simultaneously address the immediate medical and behavioral aspects of substance abuse while providing targeted and in-depth treatment for the trauma-related triggers that sustained it. This is accomplished through a comprehensive course of professional addiction treatment beginning with medically supervised detoxification, followed by focused and customized behavioral rehab. While each patient’s addiction care needs will vary according to their level of trauma and their scope of substance abuse, addressing both of these factors is crucial to successful management of stress and to sustaining recovery. More severe cases of co-occurring trauma and substance abuse may require long-term inpatient treatment, whereas those with a more limited history may benefit from intensive outpatient (IOP) care.
Detoxification and Withdrawal Management
Medical detox provides a safe, supportive, and compassionate environment to help patients heal from the worst of their withdrawal symptoms and get expert help for any medical issues that may arise during the process. This is perhaps the most vulnerable that patients will ever be during the addiction treatment process, and it’s critical that they have quality help and support to help them get through their acute withdrawal symptoms. Patients who endeavor to detox on their own, specifically those with a longer history of substance abuse, run a heightened risk of relapse because they’re simply unable to endure the process alone.
Rehab and Behavior Modification
Most patients who develop substance abuse as a result of childhood trauma never confront or effectively process their trauma without reliving it over and over and letting it run their lives. Behavioral rehab during the addiction treatment process allows patients to work with a trained mental health expert to address the trauma-related root causes and sustaining factors of their addictions. Through techniques like group therapy, individualized counseling, and supplemental therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing,eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and more, patients can begin to healthily process their trauma, recognize triggers, and successfully manage stress in their everyday lives.
After patients complete their treatment program, they should be given a comprehensive and targeted aftercare plan that builds on their progress in treatment and provides contact information for addiction and trauma specialists in their area to whom they can go for ongoing therapy.
Stopping Childhood Trauma in Its Tracks
Parents of childhood trauma survivors often feel powerless to help their sons or daughters, and many of them fail to grasp exactly how much the trauma they’ve sustained has affected them.
If you suspect your child has sustained trauma for which they need professional help, there are multiple resources to help them get the care they need, from organizations such as:
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration SAMHSA
- The United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
- The Child Mind Institute
- That National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)
Early intervention in childhood trauma can mean the difference between a healthy and productive life and significant psychological and emotional impairment and substance use.
Don’t Let Your Past Dictate Your Future
Millions of Americans struggle with addiction related to one more traumatic childhood experiences; the primary difference that determines their lives is the steps they take to choose their future once they realize they have a problem. It’s important to realize the trauma you have sustained may have compelled you to unwittingly develop an identity, value system, long-term behaviors, and even your very sense of right and wrong—unpacking these issues will not occur overnight or in a vacuum. Don’t let your early trauma put you in an early grave. Get the help you need now to start fighting back against your trauma-related addiction.
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Behavioural consequences of child abuse.
- healthland.time.com – How PTSD and Addiction Can Be Safely Treated Together
- nimh.nih.gov – Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
- jamanetwork.com – Course of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder 40 Years After the Vietnam War
- ptsd.va.gov – National Center for PTSD
- huffingtonpost.ca – Lingering Childhood Trauma Can Manifest As Conflict In The Workplace
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Childhood Trauma and Chronic Illness in Adulthood: Mental Health and Socioeconomic Status as Explanatory Factors and Buffers
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study.
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – The Relationship between Childhood Trauma and Suicidal Ideation: Role of Maltreatment and Potential Mediators
- sciencedirect.com – Differential effects of childhood trauma and cannabis use disorders in patients suffering from schizophrenia
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Childhood trauma and METH abuse among men who have sex with men: Implications for intervention
- sciencedirect.com – Associations between childhood maltreatment, intimate partner violence, and substance use disorders
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Exposure to Childhood Abuse and Later Substance Use: Indirect Effects of Emotion Dysregulation and Exposure to Trauma
- americanspcc.org – Child Maltreatment
- bjs.gov – Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics
- americanspcc.org – Child abuse statistics in the U.S.
- childwelfare.gov – A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: The Foundation for Practice
- Where Does Trauma Take Root?
- Behavioral And Psychological Trauma Symptoms
- Negative Impact On Quality Of Life In Adulthood Due To Childhood Trauma
- Watch Webinar On Opioids And Early Adversity: Connecting Childhood Trauma And Addiction
- Examples of Childhood Trauma Influencing Drug Addiction
- Treating Co-Occurring Addiction And Childhood Trauma
- Detoxification and Withdrawal Management
- Rehab and Behavior Modification
- Stopping Childhood Trauma in Its Tracks