Researchers, scientists, and behavioral health experts have discovered that childhood trauma is one of the major causes of addiction. Sadly, 1 in 4 American children and adolescents experience a traumatic event before their 16th birthday. Unfortunately, the deeply distressing and disturbing incidents that we experience as children often follow us into adulthood. When left untreated, trauma can interfere with healthy brain development and increase our risk of mental health issues, making survivors of childhood trauma more vulnerable to substance abuse and addiction. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), more than a third of adolescents who report abuse or neglect develop a substance use disorder before they turn 18 years old.
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as an emotional response to a terrible event. Some of the most common examples of childhood trauma include:
Experiencing divorce or abandonment can also be traumatizing for young children and adolescents. In addition to causing emotional, physical, and psychological pain, these adverse childhood experiences (ACE) can negatively impact the brain’s development.
The human brain has a miraculous ability to respond, adapt, and change based on our individual experiences. Referred to by neuroscientists as plasticity, this innate ability means that positive and negative experiences can literally change the structure and functionality of our brains. High levels of stress caused by childhood maltreatment and trauma can impede normal brain development. Continuous stress from multiple traumatic events or repeated trauma can disrupt neural connections responsible for emotional regulation and inhibition control, making survivors of childhood trauma more vulnerable to addiction.
According to ACE studies, about 64% of Americans have lived through one adverse childhood experience. Data from ACE studies also reveal that people with an ACE score of 5 or higher are 7 to 10 times more likely to develop an addiction to addictive substances. Here’s why.
Childhood is a pivotal time in establishing a healthy brain and experiencing emotional development. When a child is neglected or abused, the brain changes as a result of that environmental impact. In addition to that impaired brain development, neglectful and abusive parents circumvent children’s emotional development. Instead of learning to look toward healthy ways to self-soothe, such as parental comfort, children with neglectful or abusive parents will seek reward, comfort, and pleasure elsewhere. Many child survivors of neglect and abuse turn to something outside of themselves, such as alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, or the Internet to replace the supportive and nurturing people that were supposed to help them learn how to deal with challenges in a healthy way. Having impaired brain and emotional development can also lead to low self-esteem and mental health challenges, triggering the compulsive need to self-medicate or self-soothe pain.
Brain imaging studies also show that many survivors of childhood trauma have diminished white and grey matter in parts of the brain associated with emotional regulation and impulse control. One study found that kids who have been mistreated had connectivity problems in the superior longitudinal fasciculus (SLF), a part of the brain which helps us act intentionally, not impulsively. The same research found white matter loss in the right cingulum-hippocampus projection (CGH-R), the brain region which helps us process our emotions properly. Trauma, especially when experienced as a child, can weaken our ability to process emotions in a healthy way. Experiencing trauma can also make us more prone to impulsive behavior, causing us to act in ways we may not intend. Scientists commonly associate these brain changes with depression and substance use disorders.
Many survivors of childhood trauma have low self-esteem. Children who experienced abuse or neglect might grapple with the idea that they’re “not good enough.” They might also feel like they’re not worthy of love or care. Children who have had to take care of parents or guardians with mental health or addiction challenges may have learned self-sacrificing and self-erasure tendencies. All of these situations can cause low levels of self-esteem.
According to data from a 2018 study, most people living with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also have low self-esteem. Unfortunately, low self-esteem alone can cause people to seek out addictive substances like drugs and alcohol to feel “normal.” For a short time, the effects of drugs might make them feel confident and energetic but these effects are short-lived. Wanting to feel “normal” again, survivors of childhood trauma might continue to use the drug, opening the door to substance abuse and addiction.
Studies have proven that survivors of childhood trauma are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and mental health challenges than adults who have not experienced traumatic incidents. Some researchers suggest that more than 50 percent of children who experience trauma before the age of 13 develop depression or some other mental health disorder. Unfortunately, many people grappling with mental health issues turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with their challenges. Sadly, addictive substances can worsen mental health disorders, making trauma survivors more likely to continue using the substance, which can, in turn, lead to substance use disorders.
70% of people receiving treatment for drug and alcohol abuse have experienced some form of trauma. Living through traumatic experiences can make you feel vulnerable, isolated, and alone. Luckily, our community-driven approach to treatment can help support you as you work to overcome a traumatic past and current addiction challenges.
Our trauma therapy program, combined with our clinical and 12-step treatment, can help you heal from the past and start to build a healthier future. We also offer dual diagnosis treatment to help you work through any mental health challenges you may be facing.
You can begin again and we can help you get there. Contact us today if you’re interested in learning more about how we help our clients heal from trauma and recover from addiction challenges.