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Childhood Trauma’s Covert Connection to Addiction

Childhood trauma has emerged as a crucial factor in shaping an individual's susceptibility to addiction later in life. Many people, both men and women, have traumatic experiences. Abuse, accidents or serious injuries, or the loss of a parent all can leave an imprint on a child’s mental health. Anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health disorders are also more common among people who have lived through disturbing events. In turn, many people with these experiences later become addicted to substances.

ACEs and Trauma as a Child

Extensive research indicates a strong link between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the development of substance use disorder. ACEs are usually various forms of abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction experienced during childhood. These experiences can range from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse to witnessing domestic violence or living with substance-abusing family members.

A landmark CDC-Kaiser Permanente study found a graded relationship between the number of ACEs a person experiences and their risk of substance abuse. People who have experienced more than one adverse even have a greater likelihood of addiction. For example, a child who experienced repeated abuse is more likely to use drugs and may also live with symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, or depression as an adult.

Adverse childhood experiences may be instances of abuse or a life-altering event.

Brain Development and Trauma

Childhood trauma can set the stage for addiction through biological, psychological, and environmental mechanisms. Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) revealed that early traumatic experiences can disrupt normal brain development, particularly in regions related to stress regulation and reward pathways. Young people who have experienced disturbing events may turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their emotional pain.

Many people who experience childhood trauma develop of maladaptive coping skills, such as self-medication through substance use, as they seek relief from the pain of the past.

Breaking the cycle of childhood trauma and addiction requires a trauma-informed approach that combines therapeutic intervention, social support, and policy initiatives.

Healing Trauma in Addiction Recovery

When a person gets sober, they’re often told to take life “a day at a time”, meaning they can’t heal themselves overnight. For people with trauma, especially those with PTSD or complex PTSD (CPTSD), this saying is essential to remember. You didn’t become addicted in one, so you must give yourself time to recover.

Therapy after detox, alongside treatment for substance use disorder, can help people stay sober. By addressing underlying trauma, individuals can learn healthier coping mechanisms, making relapse less likely.

People with mental health disorders may need treatment, such as medication, to help aid their recovery.

Preventing Addiction with Early Intervention

Experts also stress the importance of early intervention programs that support at-risk children, adults, and families, aiming to help young people before they ever pick up a drug.

Children and families that experience trauma can get therapy and invest in mental health. Learning how to talk about trauma and process it is essential; young people can learn better-coping strategies and have a support system in place. Adults in the young person’s family can also learn how to support children at risk of drug and alcohol misuse.

Many families in child protective services benefit from classes that help them cope. In families where substance use is part of the problem, early intervention can help prevent younger generations from making the same mistakes as their elders. Addressing intergenerational trauma is key in building resilient families.

Getting Help for Addiction

Many people who struggle with addiction have trauma in their past, but you’re not alone! Healing from addiction also means getting on the path to recovery from painful experiences and treating any mental health disorders.

You can recover and restore balance in your health and life. Learn more about how we can help you reclaim your life in a safe, holistic environment focused on healing. Call us at (949) 279-1376 or Mexico: (612) 153-5726.



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Hi! I’m Melissa Stailey, a freelance writer that loves to cook. I live and work in Washington, DC.