Unpacking the Impact of Childhood Trauma on Substance Abuse and Addiction

Unpacking the Impact of Childhood Trauma on Substance Abuse and Addiction

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Countless studies have shown that adverse childhood experiences (i.e., trauma) are linked to drug and alcohol abuse.

Researchers are still investigating the impact of childhood trauma on substance abuse and addiction. But so far, we know that childhood trauma plays a role in developing addictive behaviors.

Of course, adverse childhood experiences are not the only root of this mental health condition. Genetics and other environmental factors, such as peer pressure, also play a role.

But today, we want to focus on the childhood trauma component of addictive disorders. This guide will discuss trauma, substance use disorders (SUDs), and why scientists believe they are connected. Read on to learn more.

What Is Childhood Trauma?

Childhood trauma includes early abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence. Abuse may be sexual, physical, emotional, psychological, or a combination of these. Neglect may be physical or emotional.

Exposure to violence may mean witnessing domestic violence. Or it could mean being exposed to war, trafficking, or terrorism. Children who witness someone's death also often become traumatized.

Divorce, the death of a parent, separation from a parent, and adoption can also be traumatic experiences. Natural disasters, car accidents, and surgeries may also traumatize children. Even pandemics may be considered early traumas.

74.2% of women and 81.3% of men have experienced trauma at some point in their lives. Many of these people experienced trauma during their childhood. Others undergo trauma later in life.

Yet, the strongest link between trauma and addiction is when the former occurs during childhood. These events can have long-term effects on the child's mental and physical health.

When early traumas go untreated, they can also lead to problematic behaviors. We will talk more about the ways trauma impacts childhood and adult behavior next.

The Impact of Childhood Trauma on Substance Use and Addiction

Trauma impacts internalizing and externalizing behaviors in children and adults. Internalizing behaviors include mental health symptoms such as anxiety and depression. Externalizing behaviors include aggression and attention-seeking.

Unfortunately, these behaviors are not restricted to the years directly following the event. Trauma can have a lasting impact on your life. As a result, you may still suffer from its consequences decades after the event occurred.

Learn more about how childhood trauma follows you into adulthood next.

Attachment Style

Attachment style theory explains how a child's relationship to their caregiver(s) impacts how they relate to others as they get older. There are four types of attachment styles:

  1. Secure: The child feels confident that their caregiver(s) is available and will meet their needs
  2. Insecure avoidant: The child avoids intimacy because they do not trust others to be available and meet their needs
  3. Insecure anxious: The child desires closeness but fears others will abandon them
  4. Insecure anxious/avoidant: The child wants closeness but avoids intimacy because they do not trust others

Children who experience ongoing early traumas are prone to developing insecure attachment styles. A child's attachment style doesn't just impact their caregiver relationship(s). It also affects their adult relationships.

Let's consider someone with an insecure avoidant attachment style. This person may avoid close interpersonal relationships. People may refer to them as "shut off" or "unavailable."

Insecure anxious adults may jump from one relationship to the next. Their partners may refer to them as "clingy." Meanwhile, anxious/avoidant adults may flip-flop between the two.

Adults with insecure attachment styles may also struggle with stress. For example, studies show that people with anxious/avoidant attachment styles may perceive everyday events as stressful.

People with insecure attachment styles also have an increased risk of mental health symptoms. These include personality disorders, depressive disorders, and stress disorders.

Last but most importantly, insecure attachment predicts future exposure to trauma. This is sometimes referred to as trauma bonding. Trauma-bonded adults may seek out experiences that remind them of their abuser(s).

Emotions and Impulses

The brain controls behavior. And the structure of the brain determines how it functions. So, it should be no wonder that trauma can change the brain's structure, which, in turn, causes behavioral changes.

Early childhood traumas are particularly detrimental to the brain. That's because the brain continues to develop throughout childhood. It doesn't stop maturing until you are around age 25.

During development, the brain is particularly vulnerable. That means stressful and traumatic events can cause long-lasting changes that affect your behavior into adulthood.

Trauma primarily affects a region of the brain called the limbic system. The limbic system's primary role is to regulate feelings and emotions. The following five areas are most impacted by childhood trauma:

  1. The Amygdala: The part of the brain that connects experiences to emotions
  2. The Hippocampus: The part of the brain responsible for emotional learning
  3. The Thalamus: The part of the brain that relays information about our environment to other brain areas
  4. The Hypothalamus: The part of the brain that excretes hormones and regulates bodily functions, including stress
  5. The Nucleus Accumbens: The part of the brain that controls our internal "reward system"

The limbic system isn't the only brain area at risk. Children who experience trauma also tend to have smaller prefrontal cortexes. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the last brain area to develop but one of the most important.

Why? The PFC controls reasoning, creativity, and problem-solving. Additionally, one of its main roles is inhibiting unwanted behaviors, a feature known as impulse control.

Substance Use

Sadly, children who experience adverse events are at least 1.5–3 times more likely to develop a substance use disorder. What's more, the more traumatic events a child experiences, the higher the impact on future addictive behaviors.

There are many theories behind why this happens. One theory is that people who experience childhood trauma experience certain symptoms. Then, they start using substances to cope with their symptoms.

For example, say a child feels constant stress after her mother's death. During adolescence, she discovers that alcohol and cannabis can ease her stress. So she continues using these substances into adulthood and gets addicted.

Another possible explanation has to do with the nucleus accumbens. If you recall, we mentioned that this brain area controls the reward system. You may also recall that the nucleus accumbens changes in response to early trauma.

This reward system uses a chemical called dopamine to promote feel-good behaviors and experiences. However, traumatic experiences damage the reward system. Specifically, trauma makes it harder to activate this system.

Drugs of abuse have the opposite effect. They significantly activate the nucleus accumbens. The brain will then want to seek out this experience over and over again because being on substances is more rewarding than not.

What Is a Substance Use Disorder?

Substance use disorders (SUDs) occur when people continue to abuse drugs or alcohol even after negative consequences to their health or social life. Experts have uncovered some of the main components of addiction, which include:

  • Tolerance: The need for more and more of a substance to achieve the same effect
  • Withdrawal Symptoms: Negative mental and physical symptoms that happen after quitting the substance
  • Cravings: The uncontrollable urge to use the substance of abuse
  • Drug-Seeking Behavior: Searching for the substance when you run out
  • Trouble Quitting: The inability to stop using substances after attempting or wanting to quit

Experts now recognize that SUDs are chronic mental illnesses. But the good news is that there are treatments to help people kick their addiction.

At the same time, it can be more difficult to quit if you have co-occurring mental health symptoms due to childhood trauma. For example, many people who experience early traumatic experiences develop PTSD.

What Addictions Co-Occur With PTSD?

PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. People with PTSD are 14 times more likely to develop a SUD. Additionally, nearly 50% of people diagnosed with this disorder have a co-occurring addiction.

The most common addictions that co-occur with PTSD and other trauma-related disorders are alcohol and mood-enhancing drugs (e.g., opioids and barbiturates). Alcohol abuse is particularly prevalent.

These types of addictions may be the most common. But that doesn't mean people with PTSD don't suffer from addictions to other substances. Also, not having a PTSD diagnosis doesn't mean someone won't develop an addiction.

Treatments for Co-Occurring Trauma and Substance Use Disorders

People suffering from a SUD and PTSD or another trauma-related disorder can have hope. Experts have come up with safe and effective treatments for both of these conditions.

At Embark Recovery Center, we offer treatments for trauma and addiction. Learn more about our treatment programs below.

Trauma-Centered Therapy

Getting help for your trauma(s) is crucial to recovery. And by this, we mean it's crucial for recovery from your mental health symptoms and addiction.

Two of the top trauma-centered therapies are EMDR and PE. EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. PE stands for prolonged exposure therapy.

EMDR and PE are both forms of exposure therapy. That means you must recall the traumatic event for them to work.

Exposure therapy can be extremely distressing for some people. As a result, they may feel that undergoing therapy is not worth it. Approaches like rapid resolution therapy (RRT) can help here.

RRT is a newer treatment for trauma disorders. It doesn't require clients to spend too much time thinking about the event. For this reason, it is an excellent alternative for people who can't tolerate EMDR and PE.

Substance Use Disorder Treatments

People with mild SUDs may need outpatient treatment alone. They can detox at home and attend regular therapy sessions.

Detox is the process of getting drugs or alcohol out of your system. During this time, you may experience uncomfortable and even painful withdrawal symptoms.

People with moderate to severe addictions will most likely need to attend an inpatient program. It is safer to undergo detox at the facility and easier to abstain from substances away from home.

A rehab center can support you through the entire process. Medical professionals are available every step of the way. You may even be eligible for medications to make your withdrawal symptoms more manageable.

Once you finish the detox program, you can enroll in addiction therapy. Inpatient addiction programs allow you to live full-time at the rehab center while receiving therapy.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Did you know you can receive addiction treatment at the same time as trauma therapy? This is an emerging structure known as dual diagnosis treatment.

The goal of dual diagnosis treatment is to get to the root of the substance abuse problem. Often, that means addressing childhood traumas that may negatively impact your life.

For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may help here. CBT teaches clients about negative thought patterns that may be exacerbating their symptoms.

Once clients identify these thought patterns, they can work to improve them. And according to the theory behind CBT, improving thought patterns impacts behavior positively.

During dual diagnosis therapy, you will also learn new coping strategies. That way, if a mental health episode strikes, you can turn to something other than drugs or alcohol.

Recovery Support Groups

Studies have found that social support after a traumatic event can provide a child with resilience. The more support the child receives, the more likely they are to recover and even avoid substance use issues.

Unfortunately, getting support now may not be enough to have this effect. But joining a support group of peers who understand what you're going through may help if you experience new traumas.

Recovery groups are also incredibly helpful for addiction recovery. That's why many rehab centers include support group participation in aftercare plans.

In a review of the research, peer support groups consistently reduced relapse rates. As such, these groups may help encourage lifelong recovery.

Get Childhood Trauma and Addiction Treatment at Embark Recovery

The impact of childhood trauma on substance abuse and addiction can last a lifetime. Even one early traumatic event can significantly increase one's risk of addiction. The good news is that treatment can help.

Are you looking for a dual diagnosis program in Prescott, Arizona? Embark Recovery offers safe and effective treatments for substance use disorders, trauma, PTSD, and more.

Contact Embark Recovery for information about our programs and begin your recovery journey.

Begin your road to recovery