Childhood Trauma and Addiction

November 25, 2022

Exposure to traumatic experiences as a child can leave us with long-lasting scars, both physical and psychological. Not surprisingly, unresolved childhood trauma is commonly associated with substance use and the development of addiction. In recovery, we have to heal from these past traumas to achieve sobriety and prevent future relapses. 

Childhood Trauma

Unfortunately, childhood trauma is common. More than two-thirds of children report that they have experienced at least one traumatic event before age 16. Childhood trauma can include a variety of events and situations, including, but not limited to:

  • Physical, psychological, or sexual abuse
  • Neglect
  • Life-threatening or serious illnesses
  • Assault, whether physical, sexual, or psychological 
  • Sudden or unexpected loss
  • National disasters 
  • Community violence or bullying 

Commonly, young children and adults alike do not understand the long-lasting impact that a traumatic event can have on them. For many, it can take years to address trauma, especially if they grew up in households where traumatic experiences were considered “normal.” Often, individuals do not identify a specific instance or circumstance as traumatic until they are exposed to healthy environments outside of their homes. 

Childhood Trauma and Addiction Development

All types of trauma, but especially childhood trauma, increase an individual’s risk of developing behavioral health and substance use disorders (SUDs). Additionally, there is extensive research that addresses the link between unresolved childhood trauma and the development of addiction. Addiction is regarded as the most severe type of SUD.

There are two main ways that trauma can make an individual more vulnerable to substance use and the development of addiction. These include:

Trauma Compromises Neurological Function

Childhood trauma can interfere with healthy development. The severity of the impact depends on the type of trauma and the age when it occurred. 

The changes caused by trauma can impact cognitive abilities, thinking, and emotional regulation. Additional problems that may surface as a result of unresolved childhood trauma include:

  • Insomnia and disrupted sleeping patterns
  • Undeveloped social abilities and communication skills
  • Diminished self-esteem
  • Lack of focus and attention 
  • Learning disabilities 

Dysregulated emotions and other behavioral issues can lead to the development of addiction, as these neurological changes can make an individual more vulnerable to substance use.

Trauma Can Facilitate Self-Medicating Practices

Trauma can disrupt a person’s ability to manage emotions and stress appropriately. As a result, an individual may experience increased reactivity to stress, leading to uncontrollable mood swings. When trauma and associated emotions are left untreated, it can lead an individual to self-medicate.

Self-medicating is the use of alcohol and other drugs in an attempt to manage or treat difficult emotions. For those with a history of trauma, self-medicating may look like taking substances to calm down, wake up, or sleep better. The use of substances can vary depending on the person and the situation. Still, self-medicating can inevitably lead to the development of addiction.

Addiction and Trauma Treatment

The process of treatment and recovery from addiction is complicated. It is important that all underlying issues are addressed, including trauma. Effective addiction treatment will help clients to address unresolved trauma and overcome challenging experiences by teaching them new and healthy coping mechanisms. It is necessary to overcome trauma in treatment not only to help clients achieve sobriety but also to prevent relapse if they are exposed to traumatic and/or challenging events in the future.

Trauma-Focused Therapy

Many treatment facilities now utilize trauma-focused or trauma-informed approaches to therapy. Clients are able to reflect on their past to better understand how trauma has shaped their lives utilizing these approaches. Additionally, trauma-informed approaches emphasize the importance of safety and comfort for a client as they process these experiences. 

The events processed during therapy will vary depending on the person. However, it is important that clients learn the connection between their scars and their current behaviors, especially if they are problematic. For example, a client who has experienced childhood abuse may have initially utilized drugs or alcohol to cope. As they work to abstain from substances, the feelings and memories of old trauma will likely emerge. Therefore, trauma-focused therapies are necessary for clients to process old events and be able to find peace without turning to alcohol and other drugs.

Addiction is both chemical and behavioral and can produce long-lasting consequences to an individual’s health and well-being. Effective treatment will incorporate various other therapies to address chemical dependency and additional behaviors that may be perpetuating a client’s addictive behaviors. Trauma may be a significant piece of the puzzle for overcoming addiction, but for many, there are other wounds that must be healed to sustain long-lasting sobriety and recovery. 

Working through childhood trauma and addiction is both extremely challenging and painful. However, it is worth the effort of healing from trauma as it can help with addiction treatment and recovery. Healing from old wounds is an important part of addressing addictive behavior, as many clients with trauma have a higher risk of developing addiction and experiencing relapse. Working with a trusted therapist and/or program can help you to heal from your wounds while you learn new coping skills to be free from addiction. 

We at Buena Vista believe that everyone can live a life free from addiction. The path of recovery is unique for each client, and we are here to help guide you toward recovery success. If you or a loved one is struggling with trauma and/or addiction, we can help. Call (480) 741-9414 today to learn more about our services and programs.