How Early Childhood Trauma Can Cause Addiction

childhood trauma addiction

Substance use disorder, also known as addiction, is actually a quite complex condition. Every person usually has a choice to first try substances like alcohol or other drugs, but some people are simply more susceptible to eventually becoming dependent on or addicted to substances or addictive behaviors (such as gambling or internet addiction). Most clinicians agree that addiction begins because of a combination of genetic and environmental influences.

Stress May Influence Our Gene Expression  

The National Institutes of Health describes addiction as compulsive use of a substance despite unfortunate outcomes related to the behavior. The use of addictive substances eventually becomes uncontrollable, and addiction causes problems in relationships, health, career, and even society as a whole. While science is still identifying specific genes that are related to addiction, they have uncovered some interesting information.


Infographic by The Oaks Treatment

For instance, research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that stress can impact the way our genes express themselves. In other words, trauma and stress can cause certain parts of our genes to activate– therefore, our genetic tendencies toward addiction may become exaggerated after chronic or traumatic stress. Even individuals who do not carry a genetic predisposition for addictive behavior may find themselves more prone to addiction after incredible stress or trauma.

The ACES Study and Addiction

The Centers for Disease Control, along with Kaiser Permanente, created a world-renowned longitudinal study that has changed the way our world perceives mental health in childhood. The study began in 1997, but information from this revolutionary study is still being uncovered. The study evaluated the experiences of over 17,000 children of all races, backgrounds, and genders. Study questions looked for specific childhood experiences, such as:

  • Emotional abuse or neglect
  • Physical abuse or neglect
  • Sexual abuse
  • Household violence
  • Household substance use
  • Divorce or separation of parents
  • Mental illness among immediate family members
  • Incarceration or illegal behavior in or near the childhood home or family members

The power of the ACES study is that it finally demonstrated a clear-cut and scientifically viable connection between childhood trauma and adult mortality. This study clearly demonstrated that adults who experienced chronic stressful events in childhood are more likely to suffer from disease, substance use, disability, and even early death. This study proved, without a doubt, that it is very important to help children in our communities overcome obstacles and receive safe, structured, and comfortable activities, education, teachers, parents, and support.

This information can be very alarming for adults who overcame difficult childhoods. It is important to note that proper treatment and support, even in adulthood, can help heal these traumas and build healthier, happier outcomes. It is never too late to find some healing from childhood trauma. The results of this study do indicate that it is more important than ever to seek supportive counseling and a healthier future after any experiences of childhood trauma.

Addiction and Childhood Trauma

Nearly two-thirds of all addicted individuals once experienced some type of physical or sexual trauma in their childhood. Furthermore, childhood trauma is also closely linked to the development of adult mental illnesses, such as depression, bipolar disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and personality disorders.

The National Survey of Adolescents found that teenagers who had previously experienced sexual or physical abuse were up to three times more likely to struggle with substance use disorders than young people who had not experienced such trauma. Sadly, these scenarios are not unusual. As many as one in four children in the United States will experience one traumatic event before they turn 16 years old.

Trauma occurs when a person has a very unpleasant and frightening experience that meets the following criteria:

  • The trauma is perceived as life-threatening or majorly life-altering at the time it occurs.
  • The trauma is not under the control of the person being traumatized.
  • The traumatic experience is deeply distressing or disturbing to the individual.

Children are highly susceptible to trauma because they do not have the adult ability to make cognitive sense of situations or physically escape situations. Children are also largely dependent on the adults around them for food, shelter, and protection. Even unfounded fears of abandonment or loss of providing adults can feel life-threatening to a child. Further, children often believe what adults tell them, so if an adult threatens a child, the child may perceive a life-threatening situation, even if the adult does not carry out the threat. Acts of natural disaster, terrorism, or loss are more confusing and frightening to the developing child brain than they are to the adult brain.

Without treatment, children who experience trauma become adults who may have brain patterns of constant fear, apprehension, anxiety, worry, or anger that may have become the everyday norm. It makes sense that these adults would want to try and avoid painful memories and emotions as much as possible. After all, don’t we all want to avoid pain?

Unfortunately, for many, pain is numbed by the temporary fix of drugs, alcohol, or a process (behavior) addiction. This results in a spiral of numbing, followed by guilt, shame, and even more unpleasant feelings. In many cases, substance use leads to even more traumatic experiences. Often, this eventually leads to substance dependence, and ultimately—addiction.

Overcoming Childhood Trauma

Our brain is a constantly evolving organ. It may seem overwhelming to begin treatment for addiction and childhood trauma, but our minds and our hearts can and do recover. Dedicated dual diagnosis treatment can target the underlying causes of addiction and help each individual heal from his or her specific situation. Understanding the link between childhood adversity and addiction is only the first key to recovery.

Our confidential helpline can help you take the next step to wellness. Our experienced addiction treatment professionals can offer you no-pressure advice and support in learning more about recovery from both childhood trauma and substance use. We can offer you information on treatment programs that fit your lifestyle, budget, insurance coverage, and needs. We also help family members seek help for loved ones. Please call us today to learn more and begin a better future.