Many people who struggle with addiction can trace their problems to childhood traumas and adversities. In most cases, the abuse and neglect they experience as children leads to self-medicating with drugs or alcohol as adults.
Abuse, neglect and household dysfunction are known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). It is these experiences that are linked to the onset of addiction in adulthood.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)
Experiencing adversity in childhood can have lasting, negative effects on health. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) include things like parental divorce or separation, emotional and physical abuse, incarceration of a family member, or witnessing violence against a family member. ACEs are linked to many chronic conditions and leading causes of death, such as heart disease, cancer, and addiction. Having more ACEs can decrease life expectancy by up to 20 years.
When a person has high ACE scores, they may cope with the trauma and stress by self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. They may also engage in high-risk behaviors such as attempting suicide or participating in risky sexual activities. Often, these behaviors are an attempt to regulate a brain and body that are chronically dysregulated by toxic stress.
The good news is that there are ways to help people heal from traumatic experiences and avoid the negative consequences of ACEs. Those who have been exposed to trauma can take steps to reduce their ACEs by seeking out support, engaging in healthy activities, and connecting with others.
Research demonstrates that the more ACEs a person has, the higher their likelihood of developing substance use disorder or other forms of maladaptive behaviours, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The CDC notes that women, adolescents and individuals from marginalized groups are particularly vulnerable to the impact of ACEs and resulting addiction.
Consequently, it is important for mental health professionals to have training in trauma-informed care and develop strong referral networks to ensure that clients have access to long-term supports and specialty services that are tailored to their needs. It is also vital to understand that early childhood adversities shape cognitive schemas, or defence mechanisms, and are associated with externalising behaviours, such as harmfully using tobacco, alcohol or drugs.
As a child, your brain is still developing and susceptible to trauma that can impact you for life. These impacts, from both physical and emotional abuse and neglect, can alter your brain development, causing changes in cognition, mood and behavior. These effects may also lead to mental health conditions, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition to these issues, childhood trauma can lead to addiction and other unhealthy behaviors.
Survivors of childhood trauma seek comfort in things outside themselves that create internal altered states and provide temporary relief from their symptoms. This often leads to substance use, risky sexual behavior or other self-destructive behaviors as maladaptive coping mechanisms. Addiction to drugs or alcohol can further exacerbate these symptoms, leading to a vicious cycle of drug use and abuse.
It is important for professionals to have a trauma-informed perspective when working with survivors of childhood trauma. It is vital to understand that these individuals are not at fault for their struggles and that they deserve a compassionate, nonjudgmental approach to their treatment.
Many people with a history of childhood trauma develop drug or alcohol addictions to ease their pain. Addiction can lead to a variety of behavioral problems, including impulsive or dangerous behavior, depression, anxiety and eating disorders. It is important to address all of these issues as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. This includes therapy, such as individualized and group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy and eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) as well as clinical hypnosis. Treatment can be successful in breaking the cycle of addiction and PTSD.
Trauma-informed counseling focuses on the root causes of someone’s trauma and helps them learn how to identify negative stressors, avoid re-traumatization, and develop positive coping skills. Taking this approach helps people find the strength to be vulnerable, a process that is critical to achieving long-term recovery. A person who has survived adversity can often become isolated from others, and they may even hide aspects of their personality to avoid being judged by those around them. This can cause them to feel powerless and out of control. Addiction can amplify these feelings, and it’s common for people to seek comfort in drug-induced numbing.
As a person moves through recovery, they must work with professionals trained in trauma-informed care. This includes identifying and addressing childhood trauma and traumatic coping mechanisms. It also requires addressing family dynamics like parental substance misuse or mental illness, domestic violence, and incarceration/deportation of a loved one. A trained therapist can identify the role that childhood trauma plays in the individual’s addiction, as well as help them learn healthier coping mechanisms so that drugs and alcohol don’t remain their primary way of dealing with stress.
The ACE Study established that childhood trauma leads to many different health problems in adulthood including depression, obesity, tobacco and substance use disorders, and even suicide attempts. In fact, the more a person suffers from ACEs, the higher their risk for all of these issues. This is largely because repeated exposure to stress and trauma alters the structure of brain myelinated axons and exacerbates the body’s stress, fear, and autonomic nervous system responses.
Trauma-informed treatment approaches include evidence based practices such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, and Trauma Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It is vital that any treatment program incorporate the recognition and identification of childhood trauma into its practice.
It is crucial that we view survivors of childhood trauma who struggle with addiction or maladaptive coping mechanisms from a strength-based perspective. These struggles are not born of characterological weakness, but rather a response to years of living with untreated trauma. This is why a team approach to trauma-informed care is so essential. This approach to trauma and addiction treatment is rooted in empathy, compassion and understanding of the intergenerational patterns of trauma transmission that have long plagued our society.
Here are some questions for you to consider to continue your healing journey:
- How can a trauma-informed approach in addiction treatment help individuals who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) address the underlying trauma and develop healthier coping mechanisms?
- What are some evidence-based practices used in trauma-informed treatment approaches, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Somatic Experiencing, and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, that can be effective in breaking the cycle of addiction and addressing childhood trauma?
3. How does childhood trauma impact brain development and cognitive processes, and how can a comprehensive treatment plan, including therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy and clinical hypnosis, help survivors of childhood trauma overcome addiction and its associated challenges?